LP House bloc eyes 'Con-Ass'

By Jess Diaz, The Philippine Star

Posted at Aug 15 2014 03:37 AM | Updated as of Aug 15 2014 11:37 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Liberal Party congressmen and their allies are eyeing the convening of Congress into a constituent assembly to speed up Charter change (Cha-cha) and keep the Supreme Court (SC) from making any move to stop them.

“I am proposing that instead of legislative Cha-cha, we convene ourselves, the Senate and the House of Representatives, into a con-ass, which is one of the Cha-cha modes clearly prescribed by the Constitution,” Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III of the Nationalist People’s Coalition said. The NPC is allied with the Liberal Party (LP).

Albano said a constituent assembly or con-ass is faster to organize than Congress convening a constitutional convention (con-con), which involves the election of delegates and is more expensive to undertake.

“We need a faster mode, since we have only a year or, at most, a year and a half to do it. Only two years remain of President Aquino’s term. His declaration that he is open to Cha-cha is the game changer in this effort,” Albano said.

He pointed out that con-ass is “safer and constitutionally compliant” than legislative
Cha-cha, which is the proposed mode for changing the economic provisions of the Constitution.

Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who filed a resolution seeking the convening of an elected con-con, said he is open to the con-ass mode. “I agree that it will be faster and less expensive,” he said.

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said Cha-cha “is very doable either through a constituent assembly or a people’s initiative.”

“Now that President Aquino has spoken, we expect an avalanche of support from various sectors of society, especially from the grassroots level,” he said.

He said Aquino should be allowed to seek a second term.

“Six years is too short for a good president. And PNoy is a very good President,” he stressed.

Under the legislative Cha-cha mechanism and unlike in con-ass, the two chambers of Congress meet and vote separately to approve constitutional amendment proposals.

The process is like legislation. However, unlike in legislation where the vote required is a majority of quorum, the required vote to approve a Cha-cha proposal is three-fourths of all the members of each chamber.

Caloocan City Rep. Edgar Erice, who was the first in the House of Representatives to push for extending Aquino’s term, said he might file soon a resolution on lifting term limits.

“As I said before, the President cannot just let the process of transformation and progress be wasted as the remnants of the traditional corrupt leaders are salivating on the prospect of returning to their old ways,” Erice said.

Ako Bicol Rep. Rodel Batocabe said Aquino simply wants to curb “abuses” by the judiciary.

“As it is, aside from the threat of impeachment and self-imposed restraint by the court itself, there’s no way we can check the SC,” Batocabe said.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, dean emeritus of the Ateneo law school and a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that wrote the Constitution, has asserted that legislative Cha-cha could be constitutional.

However, he said this mode has never been tried. To avoid a constitutional challenge and a possible defeat in the Supreme Court, Albano said Congress should opt for the con-ass mode.

He said congressional leaders should agree as soon as possible on when to convene the two chambers as a constituent body.

He said the Senate and the House could work simultaneously on legislation and on Cha-cha proposals.

He added that he is open to giving the president two six-year terms, instead of just one, to allow the chief executive to sustain the reforms he has started.

He stressed that a con-ass would have the power to review the entire Charter.

Rodriguez, who is president of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines, said he is personally also open to “giving the President, not only President Aquino but his successors as well, two terms.”

“The proposal of our party is for a shift to a parliamentary-federal type of government. If we adopt that system, President Aquino could run for parliament and be prime minister,” he said.

“The prime minister will have no term limit. We will have to discuss this proposal again,” he added.

Rodriguez said a parliamentary system is ideal for the country, “since it eliminates gridlock in legislation and governance because the prime minister and his Cabinet come from parliament.”

He added that a shift in style of government could be to a federal-presidential system just like in the United States.

He pointed out that under such setup, Aquino could seek a second term if the proposed two terms for the president would be approved.

Surprised

But for some senior administration lawmakers, President Aquino’s announcement was unexpected.

“The announcement took us by surprise,” a stalwart of the LP who declined to be identified told The STAR.

“I fear that the leadership and the entire party will be divided – on one side, the voice of reason, the other, troublemakers,” the lawmaker said.

He said the turn of events left many of his colleagues in the party confused.

Many pro-administration lawmakers who normally would readily grant interviews to defend Aquino were suddenly media-shy yesterday. Some who did answer questions from journalists requested that they not be named and their answers kept off the record.

Many of them, however, pointed to a “small group” within the LP led by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad as being responsible for controversial developments under the administration, including the President’s change of mind on Cha-cha.

Another LP lawmaker said Aquino’s citing the need to clip the powers of the Supreme Court to justify Charter change was “just an alibi.”

Earlier, Majority Leader and Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali Gonzales II warned that moves to tamper with the political provisions of the Constitution would endanger an ongoing legislative process to ease the restrictive economic provisions.

Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian called Aquino’s change of heart “political suicide” and announced he was no longer supporting the planned amendment to the economic provisions of the Constitution.

He reminded Aquino of failed attempts to lift term limits for presidents through Charter change. He said the administration could be making its own attempt to amend the Charter because its presumptive standard bearer in 2016 is trailing in surveys.

“Charter Change for term extension will obliterate PNoy’s good name and legacy,” Deputy Majority Leader and Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption party-list Rep. Sherwin Tugna said.

Youth Against Poverty and Corruption party-list Rep. Carol Jayne Lopez said Aquino is treading on dangerous ground with his sanctioning initiatives to amend political provisions of the Charter.

“From the start I am open to the economic overhauling of the Constitution’s provisions. But touching the political side, the term limits in particular, at this point in time when elections are a year and half away is most certainly not appropriate,” Lopez said.

Testing waters

For Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, President Aquino and his LP allies may be testing the waters by voicing their openness to term extension though Charter change.

“It is difficult to decipher the President’s intentions when he says he is open to a second term but he and the LP may be testing the waters, so to speak,” Angara said.

“They may be floating a trial balloon of term extension to see if it will fly with the public. Whether it will fly or not, well, that remains to be seen and only time will tell,” he added.

“Perhaps as he nears the end of his term he realizes he wants to do more. The statement that he is open to a second term does not necessarily mean he will run again, as he has also repeatedly said he is looking forward to stepping down in 2016,” Angara added.

On the President’s expressing his wish to have the powers of the SC clipped, Angara said it was the 1987 Constitution that gave “vast judicial review powers” to the High Tribunal.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, chairman of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, said he is not in favor of changing the Constitution to dilute the powers of the SC.

He said that if the administration is not happy with the Charter, any changes “should be in the entirety of the Constitution and not pretend that we will limit it to the economic provision.”

Pimentel even recommended that the chief executive be allowed to serve two-terms of four years each. “Why not go back to two four-year terms so that the election of the sitting president would be a referendum or a review of his performance for the first four-year term?” Pimentel added.

He said a no election scenario should be avoided at all cost.

Administration ally Sen. Francis Escudero, in Davao City for the Kadayawan festival, also expressed surprise at the President’s announcement.

But Escudero understood this to be real politik in order for the President not to be treated like a lame duck in his last two years in office.

He also said he is neither for term extension nor for curtailing SC’s powers. “What will happen to our country if we reduce the powers of the Supreme Court?”

Enlightenment

Opposition Sen. Nancy Binay expressed hopes President Aquino would see the light and follow the examples of his parents.

“PNoy witnessed history from the point of view of his parents. Sen. Ninoy and President Cory fought a regime that believed it had the sole franchise to make the country great,” Binay said in a text message.

“President Noy would honor what his parents stood and died for by continuing their crusade,” she added.

She said President Aquino may have been egged on to support the lifting of term limits through Charter change by politicians desperate for getting his endorsement.

“I am praying that PNoy will not allow his parents’ good name to get tarnished by accommodating people with no chances of winning in honest elections,” she said.

Senate acting minority leader Vicente Sotto III said he “seriously doubts if the President will cross the legacy of President Cory.”

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expressed surprise that the President had changed his mind but stressed “my position will depend on what amendments are proposed.”

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito said he is in favor of amending only the economic provisions of the Constitution. “Definitely, I will oppose efforts to revise the political component of our Constitution,” Ejercito said.

“Those who are urging the President to extend his term should refrain from doing so, to spare the President from the people’s anger over this issue,” he said. – Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Alexis Romero, Edith Regalado