Congress plumbs the pits with Cha-cha resolution

by Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Jun 10 2015 09:01 PM | Updated as of Jun 11 2015 05:02 AM

Just when you think the House of Representatives has gone through the entire catalogue of venal acts, it rolls out a new outrage.

Efforts to amend the 1987 Philippine Constitution are nothing new. There have been two failed attempts at a people's initiative. Periodically, and often when national leaders face a crisis, lawmakers make a bid for charter change.

This time, the House hurled the lowest of low balls as the country was caught up in the brawl over the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). It passed on second reading Resolution No. 1 of the 16th Congress. HoR leaders aim to pass this before they adjourn sine die (whether they extend session to tomorrow remains to be seen).

Resolution No. 1, authored by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, proposes amendments to some of the Constitution’s economic provisions: Article XII (National Economy and Patrimony), Article XIV (Education, Science and Technology, Arts, Culture and Sports), and Article XVI (General Provisions).

Local and foreign investors, and some economists, academics and civil society groups, have long sought to change these provisions.

Charter change will have long-term repercussions for the nation. Thus, most proponents see the necessity for thorough debate on every proposed amendment. And most proposals present clear changes.

Magic phrase


The honorable members of the HoR, however, want to pull a fast one, ostensibly with the noble intention of chopping the tangled knots of poverty in this country.

The Belmonte initiative would grant Congress the power to tinker anytime with the Constitution’s economic provisions.

Lawmakers want a blanket mandate to upend the charter’s economic provisions. This would mean bypassing the need to submit every amendment to a referendum.

The magic weapon? One phrase: “Unless otherwise provided by law”.

Normally, a law fleshes out a positive provision of the Constitution. Take the Freedom of Information (FOI) measure – once more left by the House to lie there and die there – which would be the enabling law of Section 7, Article III:

“The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

Fast and loose

The Belmonte resolution, however, targets limits imposed by Constitution and grants Congress the power to sweep these aside.

The first target is the first paragraph of Section 2 of Article XII, which states:

“All lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum, and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources are owned by the State. With the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated. The exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State. The State may directly undertake such activities, or it may enter into co-production, joint venture, or production-sharing agreements with Filipino citizens, or corporations or associations at least sixty per centum of whose capital is owned by such citizens…

See what happens when you add Belmonte’s pet phrase:

“All lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum, and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources are owned by the State. With the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated. The exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State. The State may directly undertake such activities, or it may enter into co-production, joint venture, or production-sharing agreements with Filipino citizens, or corporations or associations at least sixty per centum of whose capital is owned by such citizens, UNLESS OTHERWISE PROVIDED BY LAW…"

Cowards

Section 10 of Article XII mandates Congress to reserve certain areas of investments to Philippine citizens or to corporations or associations that are at least sixty percent owned by citizens. The Belmonte resolution inserts, UNLESS OTHERWISE PROVIDED BY LAW.

What the House gives us is a breathtaking display of dishonesty and cowardice.

Most cha-cha advocates would present the people with a clear proposition; say, allowing government to contract joint ventures, co-production and production-sharing agreements with foreign corporations or entities.

The House gives lawmakers full discretion over the matter.

The same tactic affects Section 11 of Article XII, which deals with franchises and authority to operate public utilities, limiting these to citizens of the Philippines or corporations that are 60 percent owned by citizens.

Lawmakers can now choose to lift this constitutional check. Such is the power of a phrase.

“The majority promised they would not delete any provision but only insert a phrase. These were not mere insertions but also deletion,” notes Senior Deputy Minority Leader Neri Colmenares (Bayan Muna)

Education, media

The resolution gives the same treatment to the following:

Section 4 of Article XIV, which imposes the same limits on ownership, control and administration of schools, other than those established by religious groups or mission boards. (It also deletes the provision under Art. XIV, Sec. 4 that allows Congress to require increased Filipino equity participation in all educational institutions.)

Section 11 of Article XVI, limiting ownership and management of mass media to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens. The same section also reserves engagement in advertising to Filipino citizens or corporations with 60 percent of capital owned by citizens.

Do it right

House leaders reassure us that only these economic provisions will be up for amendment.

Of course, given Congress’ track record for springing nasty surprises when the two chambers consolidate their versions, that promise doesn’t count for much.

But that’s not even the point.

Constitutional change is a legitimate issue. It should be tackled head on.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno wants President Aquino to form a constitutional convention to study changes in the Constitution simultaneous with the 2016 elections. Puno also sees cha-cha as a way out of the BBL impasse – that clearly means amendments to both economic and political provisions.

Will a constitutional convention be expensive, divisive, raucous? Yes, it will be all that.

But it will allow a thorough review of proposed changes among stakeholders.

Besides, one doesn't exactly relate fiscal prudence with the Philippine Congress -- remember pork?

The Constitution is the nation’s basic law. We cannot allow Congress to gift itself with the unilateral right to negotiate – and yes, these will be very expensive negotiations with interest groups – on critical provisions that could change our country’s socio-political and economic landscape.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.