Cha-Cha alive in Congress: Dela Rosa, Tolentino push for Con-Ass to amend charter

Both houses of Congress are reigniting talks to change the 1987 Constitution after two senators allied with President Rodrigo Duterte recently pushed lawmakers to convene into a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass).

Senators Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino filed their Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 calling for a Con-Ass last December 7, 2020, but it received media attention only on Wednesday, January 6.

It was also on Wednesday when House committee on constitutional amendments chair Alfredo Garbin Jr told Rappler that Speaker Lord Allan Velasco gave his panel the green-light to resume Cha-Cha hearings this month.

While the House insists they just want the Con-Ass to amend the “restrictive” economic provisions in the charter, Dela Rosa and Tolentino want to change provisions on “democratic representation and the economic provisions of the Constitution.”

“Democratic representation” may mean that the two Duterte allies want to introduce changes to the scope of power and even the term limits of elected officials.

Dela Rosa and Tolentino argued the 33-year-old charter needs to be amended to help the country achieve economic growth during the crippling coronavirus pandemic.

“Against the backdrop of mounting economic and health concerns brought about by the pandemic, it is important to ensure that the subsequent national policies and strategies for the rehabilitation of our nation be responsive to the needs of our people in order to bring about genuine economic growth and sustainable development,” the senators said in RBH 2. 

But Senate President Vicente Sotto III for now seems uncertain on the prospects of the revived Cha-Cha movements in Congress. Past attempts under the Duterte administration have so far failed.

“Touch and go! I really can’t tell. We need majority vote to approve the reso and convene but you need 3/4 vote to approve Consti amendments,” Sotto told reporters on Wednesday. 

More power

Critics, even lawmakers themselves, have long warned against abuse of power if a Con-Ass is convened. Once a Con-Ass is formed, lawmakers would have the freedom to propose amendments to any provision in the Constitution.

It’s no secret that Duterte himself wants the Constitution amended. A shift to federalism – where the country would be divided into autonomous regions – was a campaign promise of the former Davao City mayor.

In the previous 17th Congress, the House under then-speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo approved on 3rd reading RBH No. 15 that would have shifted the Philippines to a federal system of government. RBH 15, however, was “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

Under the current 18th Congress, Cha-Cha moves were pushed anew.

In December 2019, the constitutional amendments panel, under former chairperson and Cagayan de Oro City 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez, approved a resolution in a closed-door meeting. They sought to lift the constitutional restrictions on foreign investments as well as extend the terms of House members and local officials to 5 years. 

Following public backlash over the discreet proceedings, the panel recalled the approval of the resolution and reopened public hearings on Cha-Cha in January 2020 – just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The COVID-19 crisis further stalled the hearings.

Plebiscite to coincide with 2022 polls?

If the House had its way, DIWA Representative Michael Aglipay told reporters on Thursday, January 7, that they want the Con-Ass to be formed by end of the month.

Aglipay, who is a close ally of Velasco, also said the lower chamber is hoping the plebiscite for their proposed amendments would coincide with the presidential elections in May 2022.

"Isasabay sa pag-ratify ng presidential elections 'yung pagra-ratify ng mga amendments," the House committee on good government and public accountability chair told reporters via Zoom.

(The ratification of the amendments would be held simultaneously with the presidential elections.)

The Constitution allows 3 modes to make amendments to it:

  • Con-Ass
  • Constitutional Convention
  • People's Initiative

But any proposed amendments would be finalized only once the rest of Filipinos vote for them in a plebiscite.

Aglipay said that just like the senators, Velasco is pushing to revive Cha-Cha to help cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He argued that opening up the country to more foreign direct investments would help address job losses caused by the public health crisis.

“Since our neighbors in Southeast Asia are more welcoming to foreign direct investments, that’s our focus too. When investors look at our neighbors, we are lagging behind in terms of provisions that will welcome foreign direct investments,” Aglipay said in Filipino.

Aglipay was among the House leaders who met on Wednesday to set the agenda for the upcoming Cha-Cha hearings. 

He insisted that Velasco is “acting on his own” on reviving Cha-Cha and supposedly did not inform his colleagues if Duterte had given any marching orders regarding the matter. 

Aglipay pointed out that Velasco’s own version of RBH 2 – which would introduce amendments to the economic provisions under Articles II, XIV, and XVI of the Constitution – was filed way back in 2019. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.

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