SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 12, 2018 - 12:00am

In the latest Charter change initiative to shift to a federal system of government, public scrutiny has shifted from substance to motive.

This is the lament of Edmund Tayao, a member of the consultative committee or Concom, which has finished its work and submitted its draft federal charter to President Duterte. Tayao didn’t say it, but the motive can be fatal for the federalism campaign.

The heightened public suspicion of the motive can be traced mainly to the usual suspects: the members of the House of Representatives. After that chaotic power grab last July at the start of the third session of the current Congress, which disrupted the President’s State of the Nation Address, HOR members continue to behave true to form.

Shortly after it was reported that Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would revive the push for Cha-cha, the HOR committee on constitutional amendments unveiled its own draft charter, whose most controversial measures the Concom has disowned.

The Concom formally declared this in a letter that its members drew up Wednesday for submission to the Office of the President. Duterte may want to provide some guidance to the Concom on the issue, as its members are just as dumbfounded as many others by the draft charter produced by the HOR panel led by Leyte Rep. Vicente Veloso.

Amid the uproar, the HOR backpedaled pronto the other day on the most controversial provision in the House draft charter: the exclusion of Vice President Leni Robredo from the line of succession during a transition to a federal system. In case President Duterte makes good on his promise to step down in a transition period, he will be replaced not by Robredo but by the Senate president.

The other controversial provision is the lifting of term limits for all elective officials except the president and vice president – a sweetener that the proponent apparently believes will win political support for Cha-cha.

Veloso skillfully dodged questions on who proposed the two controversial provisions, saying only that it wasn’t him. Speculation is focused on GMA herself and that the proposal was just a trial balloon.

Akbayan party-list Rep. Tom Villarin said there’s a third contentious provision in the House version: the bill of rights includes the right to bear arms, like in the United States. From Batanes to Jolo and Sarangani, don’t we already have enough loose firearms?

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The Akbayan congressman stresses that the HOR draft, unlike the work of the Concom, is not even a federal charter because it provides for a presidential, bicameral two-party system, with federalism just an option.

Villarin, who faced The Chiefs together with Tayao the other day on Cignal TV’s One News, also described the process now put in motion by Veloso’s panel as a “de facto constituent assembly” or con-ass without Senate participation. Is such a move even constitutional?

People haven’t focused properly yet on the process employed by the HOR, which seems to be undertaking Cha-cha like regular legislation, and without the participation of senators.

Naturally, Veloso thinks the HOR process is legit. On The Chiefs, he advised senators, who have said that this latest Cha-cha effort is “dead on arrival” or DOA, to study the law. Veloso, a retired Court of Appeals justice, believes Senate participation is optional in the HOR Cha-cha.

Veloso has cited House Concurrent Resolution No. 9, filed on Jan. 18 this year, which convenes Congress into a con-ass, with the Senate and House voting jointly.

With nearly 300 HOR members, senators are so outnumbered that their vote would be irrelevant and have refused to go along with the resolution.

Veloso, however, stresses that the HOR resolution is silent on whether it requires Senate action. So he thinks the HOR, even in the heat of the election season, can finish its draft charter by February next year.

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Villarin, on the other hand, agrees with the senators. This Cha-cha effort, he told us, is seen to be the handiwork of GMA, and part of her continuing feud with former speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Combine GMA, who has the lowest survey ratings among the top government officials, with federalism / Cha-cha, which was also a bottom dweller in the list of public priorities in the latest surveys, and you can be sure this initiative is dead in the water, Villarin observed.

Tayao admits that the role of the Concom is just recommendatory, and ultimately it will be Congress that will tackle the shift to federalism. Even if the Cha-cha mode is through a constitutional convention where the delegates are elected, many of the same political clans and special interests already represented in Congress are likely to seek con-con membership – and win.

Whether through a con-con or a con-ass, legit or de facto, the question for most Pinoys when pondering Cha-cha for federalism is whether Congress can be trusted with designing this seismic shift in the system of government.

Congress has long suffered from a trust deficit. Concom members must be feeling all their work of the past months creeping inextricably toward the wastebasket.

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Contrary to Veloso’s claim, the Concom letter to the President will stress that its draft federal charter does NOT include the proposals for the lifting of term limits, the exclusion of Robredo from the line of succession, and the right to bear arms.

The Concom did suggest the lifting of term limits, but only if the provision against political dynasties is also approved. Several Concom members including chairman Reynato Puno and former senator Nene Pimentel had previously told The Chiefs that the anti-dynasty provision is non-negotiable. It is the answer of federalism proponents to critics who say that a federal system will merely make it easier for political dynasties to stay in power forever and allow them to turn public coffers into personal piggybanks.

It’s doubtful that the Veloso committee and GMA’s HOR will ever approve such an anti-dynasty provision.

Senators are right; at this point, it’s time to declare federalism DOA.

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