charter change

Will Congress dance to Duterte’s last Cha-Cha?

Mara Cepeda
Will Congress dance to Duterte’s last Cha-Cha?
Economic charter change is pretty much a done deal in the House, but the biggest obstacle still lies in the Senate

In the homestretch of his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte’s allies in Congress are making a last push to fulfill a long-standing marching order: Change the 1987 Constitution. 

Attempts in the past 4 years have gone nowhere because senators strongly opposed it. Shifting the country to federalism was too radical even for the supporters of a president as popular as Duterte. 

So what’s the difference this time? 

Introducing a one-liner amendment to open up the Philippine economy to foreign investors – a proposal by loyal Duterte ally and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco – is now more palatable to Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III. 

“[A] single amendment could be possible,” Sotto told Rappler, adding that he shares Velasco’s belief that easing restrictions on foreign investments via charter change (Cha-Cha) can help the economy crippled by the coronavirus crisis.

Sotto, however, will be hard-pressed to convince the rest of the Senate to be open to economic Cha-Cha, as his colleagues have already expressed their reservations – if not outright rejection – of the proceedings. 

This last Cha-Cha, the Congress leaders said, would happen only if the economic provisions are amended. They insist they would not touch provisions that could extend and expand their power because doing so would be far more complicated to pursue in the middle of a raging pandemic – and one this close to the next presidential elections at that. 

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The public, however, cannot just take their legislators’ word for it. 

Filipinos need only to look at the passage of the anti-terrorism law and the denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise during the COVID-19 crisis for proof of Congress’ predisposition to grant Duterte’s wishes. 

Constitutional law professor Tony La Viña and law student Jayvy Gamboa argued in their Rappler opinion piece that despite assurances from legislators, Filipinos are still “left at the mercy of their words and promises.”

“Reliance on these legally hollow pronouncements will prevent us from holding Congress into account, should it decide to run amok. Once the process of charter change commences, the possibility of the proposed changes going out of our control is just around the corner,” warned the legal experts.

Much is at stake here for the President, whose political muscle was tested by a pandemic that his administration has tragically mismanaged. Duterte’s last political dance with the Constitution is thus a litmus test of his political sway and influence. 

The House compromise

At the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City, economic Cha-Cha is pretty much a done deal.

Leaders of 8 major political blocs – among them the ruling PDP-Laban where Velasco is executive vice president – already signed a manifesto to support the Speaker’s fresh bid for charter change. 

The manifesto is filled with assurances and offers of compromises designed to avoid lengthy debates on issues that senators are likely to raise. 

The ranking legislators said they have a “united consensus” that the chamber would deliberate “only the economic provisions” specified under Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2, penned by Velasco himself way back in 2019. 

They also committed to ensure that when both the House and the Senate vote on the proposed amendments as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) – one way of amending or revising the charter – the chambers would vote separately. Otherwise, if Congress votes jointly, senators would be outnumbered by the House members. 

Velasco himself also proposed that the plebiscite for the economic amendments should coincide with the May 2022 polls – his way of convincing the public that the House members are not out to use Cha-Cha to extend their terms.

The Speaker’s RBH 2 is the sole basis of the ongoing hearings of the committee on constitutional amendments, where economists and political pundits generally supportive of Cha-Cha are the ones being invited speak. 

RBH 2 proposes to add the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” to provisions that say only Filipino citizens can control, own, and/or lease alienable lands, public utilities, educational institutions, mass media companies, and advertising companies in the Philippines. 

The end goal is to empower Congress to pass bills that would lift current restrictions on foreign ownership or management of these sectors. 

DUTERTE ALLIES. Speaker Lord Allan Velasco (center, in blue suit) and other lawmakers pose for a photo using President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature fist bump. Photo from Press and Public Affairs Bureau
Press and Public Affairs Bureau

Velasco’s allies then went on overdrive to convince the public how Cha-Cha could help the economy recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Economist turned Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda said it is not enough for Congress to pass bills liberalizing foreign investments because the Philippine Constitution imposes tough restrictions on them

“The original sin of the 1987 Constitution is that it hard-coded very specific areas such as foreign equity restrictions that are nowhere else to be found in other constitutions in the world. That should have been left to the law,” Salceda said. 

Even Stella Quimbo, Marikina 2nd District representative who is part of the once-ruling Liberal Party (LP), has argued that “no country has become rich without opening its economy.” 

“Letting these economic provisions be qualified through legislation means they are open to regular scrutiny and debate, and allows them to adjust with the times. That’s what the phrase, ‘unless otherwise provided law’ means,” Quimbo said. 

But what’s the problem with the pandemic justification for Cha-Cha? 

Amending the Constitution is a “political response to what is effectively a technical problem,” according to Professor Herman Kraft, chair of the political science department at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

“The coronavirus is still here and the effect of the vaccine is still months (if not at least a year) into the future. Changing the economic provisions of the Constitution will not immediately lead to investments pouring into the Philippines and pump-priming the country’s economic recovery,” Kraft told Rappler. 

House constitutional amendments panel chair Alfredo Garbin Jr, however, is unwilling to be swayed. He said “it’s always the right time to do the right thing” when confronted with questions about the timeliness of the committee hearings. 

Garbin is already expecting smooth-sailing passage of RBH 2 in his committee, as he is eyeing to kick off plenary debates on economic Cha-Cha in the House by mid-February. 

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Uphill battle in the Senate

The biggest obstacle to Cha-Cha still lies within the halls of the Senate, where, as of now, senators who have reservations outnumber those who are supporting it. 

The primary committee tasked to study charter change is headed by opposition Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan. He already raised concerns about the propriety of holding Cha-Cha talks as the country still faces its worst economic and health crisis.

It was only on January 27 of this year when Pangilinan – LP president often vilified by administration critics – called for the first meeting of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments under the Duterte presidency. 

Unlike Garbin who has been inviting mostly pro Cha-Cha resource persons in the House hearings, the Senate deliberations were more balanced. Pangilinan gave equal air time for supporters and critics of Cha-Cha to make their arguments during the proceedings.

Still, the most resounding statements came from the senators themselves, as their manifestations and questions directed at resource persons pointed to one message: They find it impractical to pursue Cha-Cha in the middle of a pandemic. 

HUDDLE AT THE SENATE. From L-R: Senators Panfilo Lacson, Francis Tolentino, Win Gatchalian, and Sonny Angara huddle with Senate President Tito Sotto. File photo by Alex Nueva España and Albert Calvelo/Senate PRIB

Senator Pia Cayetano, a known Duterte ally, questioned why the House was so adamant about pushing through with Cha-Cha yet is dragging its feet on another bill that also aims to attract foreign investors. She is also the sister of ousted Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

Senator Grace Poe agreed, saying it would be “more realistic and less contentious” if Congress just focuses on legislation “before going through the entire exercise of constitutional amendment supposedly for economic provisions.”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon went as far as calling it a “sin” to talk about Cha-Cha when the Duterte government is still struggling to fight the COVID-19 crisis.

“It is a sin to be even talking about changing the Constitution when there is still no end in sight to the pandemic, when the government is struggling to secure funding for COVID-19 vaccines, and when the country is still reeling from the continuing impact of the pandemic and the recent typhoons,” he said.

This is in contrast to the opening statements during the hearing by Senators Ronald dela Rosa, Francis Tolentino, and Win Gatchalian, all of whom filed resolutions to amend the economic provisions in the charter. 

But they have lost an ally in Senator Richard Gordon, who no longer backs Cha-Cha despite authoring another joint resolution calling for it in 2019. Gordon now thinks it is too late to pursue amendments at the tail end of the Duterte administration.

“Unfortunately, when we start doing it at the latter part of the term of any president, it becomes subject to question and scrutiny as to the real purpose of amending the Constitution,” Gordon said during the January 27 Senate hearing.

“And so therefore, I would like to make it on record that I am opposed to amending the Constitution at this time, precisely because we need to focus on many, many things that we need to do, not just the pandemic,” he added. 

Where Sotto stands

Senate President Sotto refrained from issuing statements during the hearing, but has made it quite clear in media interviews that he is generally okay with amending the economic provisions of the charter. 

Sotto told TV5’s The Chiefs that this latest push for economic Cha-Cha is “airtight” against potential abuse by lawmakers. 

“That won’t happen because in what we are proposing, it cannot happen. We can only pass that particular line. So nothing can be more airtight than that, a one-liner amendment to the Constitution,” said Sotto on January 18. 

Like Garbin, Sotto said both chambers can separately approve the economic provisions “like a bill,” where 3/4 of the entire membership of the House and the Senate – voting separately – would agree to pass the amendments on 3rd and final reading in the plenary.

SENATE LEADER. Senate President Tito III presides over the session on October 28, 2020. File photo by Albert Calvelo/Senate PRIB
Albert Calvelo/Senate PRIB

But the Senate President admitted he is wary of what could potentially happen should Congress convene into a Con-Ass.

“That will take time and that is open to any other amendments to the Constitution. That’s the danger, especially if we vote jointly. We would be outvoted immediately. That’s not possible,” said Sotto.

The last Cha-Cha

With the clock ticking, the pressure is on for both Velasco and Sotto to deliver on Duterte’s last Cha-Cha, which political analysts believe, is likely to be Duterte’s political swan song.

La Viña and Gamboa wrote that the Duterte government has already lost its credibility after failing to institutionalize long-term reforms like federalism in the last 5 years. 

But if Congress somehow pulls off charter change – even just the economic provisions – Duterte benefits in the end. 

“This charter change is a salvage of what political muscle is left with the Duterte administration,” the legal experts said.

Will Congress give Duterte what he wants or will it assert its independence this time around? – 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.