Belmonte’s charter change train takes off

Taking the legislative route, the House Speaker proposes to relax constitutional limits on foreign ownership of land and businesses

BELMONTE'S MOVE: House committee on constitutional amendments takes up House Resolution 1. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Is charter change an idea whose time has finally come?

The House committee on constitutional amendments on Tuesday, February 18, began to tackle the proposal of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr to open the 1987 Constitution to amendments that will relax limits on foreign ownership of land and businesses.

The Speaker has pushed for these amendments, saying this will increase foreign direct investments in the country, and will then lead to the creation of jobs, higher income, increased economic activities, and improved technologies.

So far, only militant lawmakers and groups are actively opposing this, unlike in past administrations, when all attempts to amend the Constitution were opposed by a wider range of sectors.

“It’s the best time to introduce amendments to the Constitution because the trust ratings of the President is very high,” said Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez, co-author of the charter change resolution, during the hearing of the House committee on constitutional amendments.

House Resolution 1 seeks to add the phrase “unless otherwise amended by law” to articles in the Constitution that specify 40% limits to foreign ownership of land and businesses, including management of media, franchises to public utilities, and ownership of educational institutions.

The resolution also seeks to increase foreign participation in developing, exploring, and utilizing lands of 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. The Constitution provides that at least 60% of capital should be owned by Filipinos.

Timeline

Based on Belmonte’s timeline, the committee can pass the resolution before Congress adjourns in March and then reach the plenary for debates when session resumes in April. This allows them time to pass the proposal within the year.

 

Other proposals to amend the Constitution have been withdrawn in favor of Belmonte’s resolution, said Rodriguez.

Belmonte said he is “reasonably confident” his proposal will pass in the House of Representatives. He said many coalition allies agreed to be co-authors of the resolution.

“This requires three-fourth vote. It is a formidable barrier. People ought to be really convinced to be able to get that vote. I am reasonably confident that we can hit that. Still, that is a big barrier,” he said.

Asked about the support of the Senate, he said: “The senators are simply watching us here. The underlying message that we have here is, it is possible to make changes like this without upsetting the whole Constitution, without putting ourselves under the suspicion that we have ulterior motives for doing this,” Belmonte said.

Legislative route

Whichever proposed mode of amending the Constitution – people’s initiative, constituent assembly, constitutional commission – has been oppposed by various sectors.

This time then, Belmonte is proposing to take the legislative route – the House and the Senate can pass the resolution separately and then go to a bicameral conference committee to reconcile two versions, just like when they are passing a law.

Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares opposed the mode. Changing the Constitution is “not a normal act of Congress,” he said. The procedure should be clear, he added.

Belmonte said his mode follows the Constitution. While the legislative route is not specifically stated in the Constitution, “I firmly believe this is one of those contemplated by the Constitution,” he said.

Among those supporting the legislative route is constitutionalist Father Joaquin Bernas.

“Obviously, you cannot overhaul the whole Constitution this way. But to have relatively simple changes, I think this is okay,” Belmonte added.

Belmonte vowed the proposal is limited to the economic provisions of the Constitution. He said he will block any attempt to introduce other changes.

Wrong or right solution?

Members of various foreign and local business groups were present at Tuesday’s hearing to support the proposal.

Businessman Ramon del Rosario said the Philippines should take advantage of the “rare opportunity” presented by Belmonte’s initiative. He said it will also help the peace process – with investments coming in, the Bangsamoro region, with its natural resources,can finally realize its “great potential.”

Calixto Chikiamco of the Foundation for Economic Freedom said charter change is needed so the Philippines  can join the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which aims to bind countries together by liberalizing economies. It covers trade in goods and services, investment, and intellectual property rights.

Sonny Africa, executive director of the research organization Ibon, agreed that the Philippines is lagging economically. The solution, however, should be localized, he said. It is not to open industries to foreigners.

Africa said globalization has not been working for the country’s favor. “The concrete experience of the Philippines with globalization is negative. It has damaged the Philippine economy.

Former Gabriela representative Liza Maza also highlighted the negative experience of other countries. She talked about “land grabs” because of the “unfair terms by which contracts are transacted.”

“This proposal is for the benefit of foreigners, not Filipinos,” she said. Maza now represents the group Women Empowerment for Good Governance (WeGovern).

President Benigno Aquino III previously declared he is not in favor of amending the Constitution, but supporters of the initiative claim he’s now taking an “open mind,” and has reportedly asked lawmakers to submit proposals.

Aquino’s Liberal Party opposed charter change initiatives under past presidents. During the Arroyo administration, however, it published an ad in newspapers, saying it preferred that discussions on amendments be conducted after the 2010 elections. The party favored a constitutional convention, whose members would be elected during the presidential elections. — Rappler.com

 

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