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House panel eyes resumption of charter change hearings in January

Charter change (Cha-Cha) talks are set to be revived in the House of Representatives this month, its opening salvo for 2021 as it resumes session in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ako Bicol Representative Alfredo Garbin Jr, the newly elected chairman of the committee on constitutional amendments, told Rappler on Wednesday, January 6, that Speaker Lord Allan Velasco has directed him to begin deliberations on the “restrictive” economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution as early as next week.

Garbin said he aims to start the committee deliberations from January 12 to 16, or the week before the January 18 resumption of the 18th Congress.

“The Speaker directed me to tackle proposals amending the Constitution, specifically the restrictive economic provisions. We will start if possible by next week, baka magkaroon ng hearing (we might have a hearing). We’ll see the timeline kung kaya (if this is possible),” Garbin said in a phone call.

Garbin met on Wednesday with Velasco, House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, good government and public accountability panel chair Michael Aglipay, and Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez, the former constitutional amendments panel chair, discuss the upcoming Cha-Cha hearings.

“Gearing up for Consti Amendments #amendrestrictiveeconomicprovisions,” Garbin captioned his Facebook post.

There are at least 8 measures filed in the House seeking to amend the Constitution, including Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 authored by the Speaker himself. 

Garbin said the constitutional amendments panel would treat RBH 2 – which would introduce amendments to the economic provisions under Articles II, XIV, and XVI of the Constitution – as the “mother measure” during the deliberations. 

Under RBH 2, Velasco is proposing to add the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” on the constitutional restrictions that limits the participation of foreign investors in the governing body of entities based on their proportionate share in the capital. 

The same phrase would be added in provisions requiring tht only Filipino citizens can control and own educational institutions and mass media companies.

RBH 2 would also add the same phrase on the current restrictions on private corporations holding lands of public domain.

The addition of the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” means Congress would have the power to pass laws easing foreign investments in the Philippines – that is if this latest Cha-Cha attempt becomes successful.

RBH 2 would call both the House and the Senate to convene into a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass), one of the 3 allowed modes to change the Constitution, to amend these economic provisions.

But critics, even lawmakers themselves, have warned against abuse of power if a Con-Ass is convened.

On Wednesday, Senate President Vicente Sotto III was asked about the chances that the Senate's version of a resolution calling for a Con-Ass would be approved in the upper chamber. The resolution was introduced by Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa.

"Touch and go! I really can't tell. We need majority vote to approve the [resolution] and convene, but you need 3/4 vote to approve [constitutional] amendments," Sotto said.

No hidden agenda?

Garbin insisted that his panel would only focus on the economic provisions for now and would not prioritize proposals seeking to extend the terms of Congress members and other elected officials – in effect possibly canceling the 2022 presidential polls.

This has long been a huge concern for Cha-Cha critics, considering that the next presidential elections is in May 2022. Candidates running in the next elections, in fact, are set to file their candidacies in October this year.

“Ay wala, wala. Ayaw niya (Velasco) ng political. Ang gusto niya mag-focus muna sa economic provisions,” Garbin said. (No, no. He doesn’t want to deal with political issues. He wants to focus on the economic provisions.)

Still, Garbin said House members can propose more amendments once the committee report reaches the plenary.

He also said the Constitution ultimately requires a plebiscite to be conducted to finalize any proposed changes to the charter.

"There is no proposal to cancel the elections or to extend the terms of Congress [members]. In fact, if you look at it, the true owners of the Constitution are the people. That’s why we have the power of ratification," Garbin said.

"At the end of the day, any amendment introduced to our 33-year-old Constitution will be subject to ratification by the people. So sila pa rin ang magde-decide (So they will still be the ones to decide)," he added.

This is not the first time for the House to attempt charter change under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who has always counted a majority of allies at the Batasang Pambansa.

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 Rodriguez approved a resolution in a closed-door meeting, aiming 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.

Just a year later, Cha-Cha is alive once again in the House. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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