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‘Can’t they wait?’ Senators slam Garbin for insisting House panel now a Con-Ass

Senators slammed the chair of the House committee on constitutional amendments for declaring that his panel was already convened into a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass).

Senate President Vicente Sotto III told reporters on Wednesday, January 13, that a Con-Ass – one of the allowed modes to amend the 1987 Constitution – can only be convened when both the House and the Senate sit as one body. 

He was asked to comment on the insistence of House panel chair Alfredo Garbin Jr that his committee was already supposedly convened into a Con-Ass when they resumed their Charter Change (Cha-Cha) hearings because they are exercising their power to propose amendments to the charter. 

“Whatever it is, they have to do it in plenary. Otherwise, that is not the Congress proper,” said Sotto, warning someone would likely question the House committee's proceedings before the Supreme Court. 

“Ano ba pinagmamadali nila eh puwede nila gawin sa Monday ‘yan in plenary? Maipilit na lang. Can’t they wait?” added the Senate President. (Why are they rushing this when they can do it on Monday in the plenary? They're just forcing it. Can’t they wait?)

The 18th Congress is still on break and will reopen session on Monday, January 18.

House committees, however, can conduct hearings even during the break since Speaker Lord Allan Velasco authorized it. 

Senate Majority Leader Miguel Zubiri countered Garbin’s logic as well, saying a Con-Ass can only be called through a resolution adopted by both houses during their respective plenary sessions. 

“With all due respect to my good friend Congressman Garbin, Congress is in recess so I’m not sure how there was plenary action on their resolution to form a Constituent Assembly. Our rules only allow committee hearings to take place during the break. So he may be discussing approval on committee level,” Zubiri said. 

Senator Panfilo Lacson also said that Article XVII of the Constitution states that the entire Congress  – and not just one committee from either houses – is the one that can convene itself into a Con-Ass. 

“Last time we heard, the Congress of the Philippines is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Patawarin natin sila. Hindi nila alam ang ginagawa nila (Forgive them. They do not know what they are doing),” said Lacson, alluding to the words of Jesus Christ when he asked God to forgive those who tortured and sentenced him to death.

Legal experts also shared the arguments of the senators, explaining that a Con-Ass is convened when both houses of Congress come together as a body to propose amendments or revisions to the Constitution through a vote of 3/4 of all members. 

Still, the charter is silent on whether the House and Senate should be voting jointly or separately – a contentious issue that has led to a stalemate in past Cha-Cha attempts

Garbin stands his ground

Despite the criticisms, Garbin on Thursday, January 14, remained adamant on his interpretation on how a Con-Ass is convened.

On Thursday, January 14, Garbin explained to reporters via Zoom that the Constitution does not provide for the convening of the Con-Ass prior to making proposals for amendments to the Constitution. He also said Con-Ass is not mentioned in House rules.

“It is inherent upon us as a Constituent Assembly when we are exercising our constituent power.  So once we propose and start initiating proposed mendments to the Constitution, we are exercising ur constituent power,” Garbin said.

“And when you speak of a body authorized by the Constitution, it speaks of Congress. And I think the committee is part of Congress. We can’t say the committee on constitutional amendments is not part of Congress when you speak of Congress,” he added in Filipino.

Garbin said he already wrote to Velasco to explain his position on the matter, and the Speaker supposedly agreed with him.

Rappler has reached out to both Velasco and House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez to confirm this, but they have yet to reply as of posting time. 

Garbin is leading efforts in the House to revive Cha-Cha upon the orders of Velasco, who said only the economic provisions would be amended to open up the economy to more foreign investors.

President Rodrigo Duterte, however, is pushing for Cha-Cha again to boot out leftist lawmakers from the party-list system.

The constitutional amendments panel plans to hold two or 3 more hearings in the coming weeks, where more resource persons will be invited to convince lawmakers and the public on the need to lift the restrictions on foreign direct investments to cushion the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Senators have questioned the timing of the proceedings since the country is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate 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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