MANILA, Philippines — Amending the Constitution through a constituent assembly (con-ass), where both chambers of Congress convene as one Charter-changing body, would be “next to impossible” at this time, according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
Sotto said Charter change (Cha-cha) through con-ass would expose the Constitution to the danger of wholesale amendments, which may include a proposal to lift term limits of elected officials that is strongly opposed by Filipinos.
He added that the Senate would oppose such a Charter change mode, especially that the question on whether or not both chambers should be voting separately or jointly if they convene into a con-ass remains unresolved.
“If you want to amend the Constitution, we could do it through the regular route (of passing legislation). Convening a constituent assembly would open up the Constitution to many amendments, so Charter change is next to impossible at this point,” Sotto told “The Chiefs” aired on Cignal TV’s One News on Tuesday night.
“For me, Cha-cha, or ‘character change,’ is more important and needed,” he said.
Only if restrictive economic provisions would be touched by introducing a line – “unless otherwise provided by law” – that would not immediately amend them, but simply provide future Congresses an opening to do so, Charter change may be possible at this time, according to the Senate president.
This could only be safely done, he explained, if the amendments are to be passed separately by the Senate and the House of Representatives and later signed by the President.
The changes, however, would only take effect if approved by the people in a plebiscite, which may be scheduled to coincide with the 2022 national and local elections.
The beauty of the one-liner amendment is that there would also be no wholesale lifting of restrictions of foreign ownership of certain economic sectors, as Congress would have to enact a separate law for each amended provision if lawmakers decide to do so, Sotto said.
“Nothing could be more airtight than (the legislative route),” he added, noting that even if House members pass other amendments other than those for economic provisions, the Senate can simply block them.
No lifting of term limits
Moves to amend restrictive economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution will definitely exclude lifting of term limits for all elected officials primarily because the plebiscite will be scheduled alongside the holding of the May 2022 presidential election.
“If only to dispel rumors that we want to extend our terms, our plan is to have a plebiscite included in our May 2022 presidential election. Now, does that mean we will lift our term limits? Remember, we will still be having elections,” Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin Jr. told journalists.
Garbin, who chairs the House committee on constitutional amendments, insisted that this has been the instruction of Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, where piecemeal legislation will be introduced to lift prohibitions on foreign ownership of lands.
“(The question to be raised in a plebiscite) is just one line in our ballots that can be answered by yes or no. That will not pose any problem; the people will be asked if they agree with the economic amendments or not,” he said.
If ever the House succeeds in exercising its constituent powers for purposes of amending parts of the 33-year-old Charter, then it will be the next Congress, the 19th (2022-2025), that will have to decide whether such is worth implementing – provided, on the other hand, that the senators agree to amend the prohibitive economic provisions.
The congressman set the next hearing of his panel on Jan. 26, where Bernardo Villegas, a respected economist and one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, international trade lawyer Anthony Abad and American Chamber of Commerce Philippines senior adviser John Forbes were invited.
Highly respected economists invited by the House have pointed to the prohibitive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution as the culprit why the Philippines has been lagging behind its Asian neighbors.
“As far as I’m concerned, (the Constitution) is the original sin of our development policy, which made it difficult for the Philippines to progress in terms of foreign direct investments (FDI),” Gerardo Sicat, professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, said.
Sicat, who writes a column for the business section of The STAR, told the House committee on constitutional amendments that “this is the time to do (economic charter change).”
“We have to lay the foundation for making the Constitution more progressive in attracting FDI. We have to undertake these reforms. I’m sure you have heard of miracle economies in the world for four, five decades. All those countries have moved forward,” he said.
Fellow professor Ernesto Pernia, who served as the first secretary general of the National Economic and Development Authority under the Duterte administration, also gave his inputs as he endorsed the easing of restrictions on foreign ownership of lands, among others.
“This is the right time because as you can see, our economy is recovering slowly. This will not only speed up our economic growth, but will also improve our quality of economic growth. We have so many lags in our procedure,” Pernia said.
“This is very much in order. Vietnam’s economy is 100-percent open. In fact, it is the champion in (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). We are the most restrictive here. Vietnam actually got the most growth in 2020,” he added.
Raul Fabella of the UP School of Economics also agreed, citing as classic example the case of Piatco (Philippine International Air Terminals Co.) in 2002, whose lawsuit dragged on for several administrations, and delayed the operation of the NAIA-3 that should have generated revenues.
“If we don’t invest in ourselves, I don’t think foreign investors will do so for us,” he said. “The investment rate in the country in the last 20 years is very low,” he added, attributing this to high power costs and slow administration of justice, among other reasons. – Delon Porcalla