Code Imperfect

Miriam Grace A. Go

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The bible of local governance has not had a major amendment since its adoption

(Editor’s Note: This story is first published by Newsbreak.)

MANILA, Philippines – The battle for the then-proposed Local Government Code, touted to become the bible of local governance, was so bloody and intense that it took its proponents, led by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., five years—or practically the entire term of then President Corazon Aquino—to get it past the legislative mill. Finally, on Oct. 10, 1991, eight months before Ms. Aquino’s term ended, Republic Act 7160 or the Local Government Code was signed into law. Its implementation started in January 1992.

Politicians in Congress and Malacañang then tried to kill the code, which sought to provide governors and mayor enormous political powers, as well as control over considerable amount of resources.

Five years later, in 1997, the law was up for review, as called for by the code. By that time, the administration of President Fidel Ramos had a good grasp of the new relationship between the national government and the local government units (LGUs). It had a clear idea, too, of the code’s limitations and the realistic requirements for meaningful local autonomy.

By that time, too, the different players in local governance had found their pet amendments to push. For the various leagues of local officials, the increase in the LGUs’ share in the national tax collection was urgent. Nongovernment organizations were passionate about representatives of the basic sectors getting additional seats in local councils. Health workers who were transferred from the Department of Health to the LGUs wanted to go back to the supervision of the national government.

Their complaints didn’t escape the attention of Congress’s oversight committee on the implementation of the code. Through a secretariat maintained at the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the committee initiated consultations with stakeholders in the different regions.

The leagues of governors, city mayors, municipal mayors, barangay chairmen, and Sangguniang Kabataan leaders came up with draft bills for specific parts of the code that they wanted amended. Civil society groups put together their own list of proposed amendments. The proposed changes in the code were so numerous, touching practically all of its 500-odd sections, that the oversight committee put them all together in an omnibus bill, which they submitted to Congress before President Ramos’s term ended in 1998. It has been gathering dust since.

A local governance expert with the oversight committee told NEWSBREAK that coming up with an omnibus bill ironically set back efforts to have the code amended. “You can’t expect Congress to tackle the revision of an entire code. Too many issues are involved, the debates will be longer, work will be slow,” said the source, who asked not to be named.

Given the wide range of proposed amendments, amending the code would become similar to amending the Constitution. If rewriting the Constitution would need the convening of a constituent assembly or the holding of a constitutional convention, imagine the same gigantic work needed to revise the code.

But the number of proposed changes doesn’t mean the code is defective, the expert said. In fact, the code has been used as a model by emerging democracies around the world. “The proposed changes are meant to enhance the local autonomy that is now in place,” he said. A more effective strategy to achieve changes is to file individual bills for specific provisions, he added.

This is how some sectors succeeded. The Liga ng mga Barangay, for example, achieved an extension of the term of barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan officials when nobody was looking. While many groups were opposing the administration’s effort to amend the Constitution and lift the term limits of elected officials in 1997, the Liga secretly submitted a draft bill to Congress, changing their term of office from three years to five years. Sponsored by then Senate President Ernesto Maceda and other lawmakers opposed to Charter change, the bill was enacted a few months before the 1998 presidential elections, a move interpreted by some as a means to woo the support of barangay officials in the upcoming polls.

So far, only a few amendments on unrelated provisions have been passed. These changes are minor, such as changing the number of provinces or cities or barangays because new ones were created by Congress. A major amendment, such as one that would truly make the LGUs more effective and self-reliant, has yet to be achieved.

The oversight committee source suggested that stakeholders focus their lobbying on one issue at a time.

Local officials and civil society can only dialogue and lobby for worthwhile amendments. The ball would be in the hands of lawmakers and Malacañang, if the latter would certify as a priority bill the omnibus measure prepared by the oversight committee that has been languishing for six years now.

To date, a total of 77 bills seeking amendments are pending in both chambers of Congress. Of these, two are omnibus bills that seek to change 300 of the 536 sections of the Code. These were filed by Senators Juan Flavier and John Henry Osmeña. Each of the other bills deals with a specific issue.

Now that calls for a shift to a parliamentary government, and eventually to federalism, are rising in pitch again, discussions for a better and more responsive Local Government Code have become necessary. –

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Miriam Grace A. Go

Miriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.