The mystical, mysterious PI

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes and its newly created Senate sub-committee kick off their own legislative process to tackle the highly contentious Charter change (Cha-cha) bills. The two committees, chaired respectively by Sen. Robinhood Padilla and Sen.Sonny Angara, will initially take up the proposed Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 6. Principally authored by House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, it is the first item on the agenda at the Senate public hearing today. 

The RBH No. 6 of Romualdez et. al. calls for amendments of several economic provisions through the constitutional convention (con-con) mode. As stated in House version of RBH No. 6, it proposed to amend the following economic provisions of the country’s 1987 Constitution: Articles XII; XIV and XVI.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri filed the Senate’s own RBH No.6 last Jan. 15. Subsequently, Angara’s sub-committee was specifically created on Jan. 30, the same day the Senate approved on first reading Zubiri’s RBH No. 6.

 Senate’s version of RBH No. 6 seeks to set the Cha-cha mode for “separate voting” by both chambers, not like the constituent assembly (con-ass) voting together as one body. The Senate’s RBH No. 6 proposes to amend existing economic provisions but following the usual legislative process. Specifically identified are the lifting of the constitutional limits of 40 percent imposed on foreign ownership on education, public utilities and advertising.

The Zubiri RBH No. 6 sprung up at the height of the controversial nationwide signature campaign for Cha-cha through people’s initiative (PI). Accusations flew all over the place on ayuda cash subsidy programs of the government allegedly paid out to entice or lure people to sign petitions calling for Cha-cha.

The only other Cha-cha mode allowed under our country’s Constitution is PI.

The Senate’s RBH No. 6 is the so-called “fourth mode” of Cha-cha by inserting a conditional amendment, adding the phrase “…unless otherwise provided for by law.” The Senate’s preferred Cha-cha mode is the untested hybrid of the con-ass. 

However, the con-ass provision of the Constitution  provides that the Senate and the House can only do amendments and revision as one body voting jointly together. This has been what the senators through the years up to the present staunchly refuse to accept. 

Many of the senators – past and present – have steadfastly opposed any Cha-cha modes which they fear might be used to amend political provisions, especially to shift to a parliamentary system of government with unicameral assembly. Senators repeatedly warned the democratic system of check-and-balance coming from the so-called “24 independent republics” of the Senate will likewise be gone. 

The RBH No. 6 of Zubiri somewhat eased up the closed minds of the senators, a number of whom are known for their individual stand in favor of Cha-cha. Not unless some of these senators have changed tunes again. Now, they acceded to engage a national scrutiny of the House-approved RBH No. 6 prescribing con-con mode to amend specific economic provisions only.

Thus, the Senate can no longer be called as “the cemetery” for Cha-cha bills that was ascribed to them by Albay Rep. Joey Salceda. As the feisty Salceda put it, all House Cha-cha bills have “arrived ‘dead in the water’ at the Senate” and have been laid to rest even after already approved by the House of Representatives. 

Speaking at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay media forum last week, Salceda deplored as very demeaning to the people who signed PI petitions for Cha-cha their being questioned by those vehemently opposed by some quarters. Salceda disclosed his own congressional district in Albay was able to gather 20,000 signatures from 297,000 registered voters from Dec. 23 to Jan. 5 this year. Salceda, who served for three terms as Albay governor, cited signatures for PI totaled 150,000 out of 900,000 or so registered voters in the entire province.

 The veteran lawmaker, a third-termer Albay congressman, argued that the ongoing signature campaign for PI is merely complying with the requirements of the highest law of the land. That is, the Constitution itself that authorized this under Article XVII, Section 2. To wit, he read: “Amendments to this Constitution may likewise be directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a petition of at least twelve per centum of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered voters therein.”

By way of personal recollection, Salceda mused he was then the chief of staff of the late senator Raul Roco, who was one of the co-authors then at the 8th Congress when Republic Act (RA) 6735, or the enabling law for the PI, got enacted in 1989. 

Salceda recalled the first PI signature drive by the People’s Initiative for Reform and Action (PIRMA) in 1997 brought RA 6735 to a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court (SC). Then lawyer Raul Lambino submitted to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) the signed petitions gathered by PIRMA. But the late senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago questioned this before the SC, which in turn issued a restraining order on the PIRMA signature drive.

The SC, headed then by Chief Justice Hilario Davide, ruled in March 1997 that “RA 6735 is incomplete, inadequate or wanting in essential terms and conditions.” But the SC maintained that the entire law remains valid and in effect. On appeal of Lambino, the SC in October 2006 did not revisit the case but the majority of the 15-man High Court agreed with the separate opinion of then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban. “My firm legal position that RA 6735 is adequate to cover initiatives on the Constitution,” Panganiban wrote, reiterating his previous dissenting opinion in the 1997 SC ruling.

Salceda argued that the best test case of RA 6735 was the successful holding of PI on March 14, 2011 at Bgy. Milagrosa in Quezon City. The petitioners won their PI signatures ratifying a barangay regulation banning illegal settlers, mendicants, abusive barangay officials and drug trafficking in their village.

Also, he recalled the PI petition to transfer the depot station in Pandacan but which lost in the voting.

Salceda rhetorically asked: “So what’s so mystical, or so mysterious about the people’s initiative?” 

The alleged ayuda has perhaps shrouded PI in the mystique, mystery that is now being looked into separately by the Senate committees on electoral reform and people’s participation.

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