Sotto’s Cha-cha moves

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III holds the distinction of being the most veteran and most senior lawmaker in the present 18th Congress. Sotto practically rose from the ranks from an ordinary Senator when he was first elected in 1992 during the 9th Congress. He got re-elected for another six-year term and served until the end of the 12th Congress.

Now 72 years old, Sotto was twice elected as Senate president in the 17th and 18th Congress. Going into his second and last term ending in June next year, Sotto would have served a total of eight Congresses. This quick to memory lane came to mind when he guested in our virtual Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday.

During our Zoom Webinar, Sotto could not help but look back his experience in the past Congresses when they tackled highly controversial bills, many of them being re-filed and debated over and over again. Sotto recalled in particular the renewed proposals to re-impose the Death Penalty bill that was eventually passed into law by the 12th Congress. He remembered then Senate majority leader Orlando Mercado whenever floor debate started on this bill prefaced it with: “Ang walang kamatayang (the undying) Death Penalty bill.”

Fast forward. When he first took office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte included the proposed re-imposition of the death penalty, especially against big-time illegal drug offenses as among his priority administration bills during the 17th Congress. Blocked by pro-life lawmakers, bills were re-filed in the present Congress. This got finally approved in 2018 by the House of Representatives but currently remains stalled at the Senate.

As a compromise and which he thinks is far better deterrent punishment, Sotto disclosed, he is pushing the approval into law his proposed new bill that seeks to separate all convicted drug lords from the National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa City. Although already imprisoned in our state penitentiary, Sotto echoed the laments of President Duterte that these big-time druglords are apparently still able to peddle their illegal drugs trafficking business while inside prison walls.

Sotto first toyed this idea while he was chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) from 2008-2009. The DDB is the policy-making body over the Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency (PDEA) created by Republic Act (RA) No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. Sotto is one of its principal authors.

This proposed special penal facility, Sotto explained, would house all hardcore drug syndicate convicts. It will be constructed in a very isolated and remote island somewhere south of the Philippines. “Preferably, near the West Philippine Sea where these convicted druglords could be the immediate casualties of any armed attacks there,” he wisecracked and guffawed at the thought of it.

Levity aside, Sotto likens his proposed construction of this penal facility to the famous “Alcatraz” prison in the United States. This is the former US federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the chilly waters of California’s San Francisco Bay where some of America’s most difficult and dangerous criminals were imprisoned from 1934 to 1963. It earned the reputation that no one can survive escape from this prison island without getting killed. However, three prisoners, namely, Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin were able to escape from Alcatraz in 1962.

The three escapees were never recaptured nor been found. In fact, it inspired a Hollywood movie in 1979 carrying its title: “Escape from Alcatraz.” The Alcatraz, however, was shut down a year later after their escape because US prison officials claimed the institution was too expensive to continue operating. Since then, Alcatraz was turned into a tourist attraction.

Sotto mentioned also as another highly contentious measure is the proposed revival of proposed Charter change, or Cha-cha for short. Despite several attempts to amend the country’s 1987 Constitution through bills repeatedly filed Congress after Congress, it always ended up dead in the water.

The last one nearly succeeded when both chambers of Congress agreed to adopt a Joint Resolution to introduce one-liner phrase “unless otherwise provided by law.” This will be added only to economic provision that limits foreign ownership of certain sectors like public utilities, media, etc. to only 40%. Sotto explained this proposed amendment does not actually remove the limitation but would allow Congress to do so as it sees fit.

So this means each measure will still go through the legislative process from filing the specific bill, public hearings and floor debates leading to the enactment of an enabling law on case-to-case basis like franchise bills. Sotto believes this “one-liner amendment” will finally break the impasse on Cha-cha.

“Let’s give credit to where credit is due. This was actually the idea of former Speaker (Feliciano) Sonny Belmonte who broached this during the previous Congress,” Sotto cited. However, this was junked by former president Benigno Simeon Aquino III who did not want anyone to tinker with the 1987 Constitution legacy of his late mother, former president Corazon Aquino.

On the other hand, Sotto revealed he would file next week a bill to address the concern of President Duterte against party list instead of doing this via Cha-cha. The President pointed to party list organizations identified with left-leaning Makabayan bloc allegedly fronting for communist groups engaged in armed attempts to oust the government.

Sotto fondly recalled he was the vice chairman of the late Sen. Raul Roco in the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and electoral reforms and as the co-author of RA 7941, or the Party-List Act. Sotto shares the President’s wish to return to the original letter and intent of the country’s Constitution that only groups representing “marginalized” sectors of the society could qualify as party list.

A showbiz entertainer by heart, Sotto is so sure with his Cha-cha moves.



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