[EDITORIAL] Whatever happens to the Constitution, you and I share the blame

Nothing beats the phrases “behind closed doors” and “while in executive session” in terms of provoking critics of charter change. Thus, when the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments on Wednesday, December 11, approved a still-unnumbered resolution, various sectors raised a howl.

The resolution proposes at least 5 amendments to the 1987 Philippine Constitution: 

The panel chairman, Cagayan de Oro’s Rufus Rodriguez, says there was no intention to keep things secret. The hearing, which was attended by members of the opposition, was not done in public only because there were no more resource persons to invite. With 4 public consultations already done across the country, he says, it was up to lawmakers to vote among themselves. 

The House likes to call the document a Resolution of Both Houses – indicating that same version will be filed and hopefully get approved in the Senate – because an RBH has the same force as a bill. When it gains bicameral approval, it can be sent for President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature to become a law.  

This act of the House committee raises questions: Were 4 consultations in a country of 101 million people, over the most important national document, enough? Were these consultations properly and sufficiently publicized? What transpired in those consultations? Why, of the many proposals and draft constitutions made over the years, were these 5 picked to be prioritized? Why assume that the Senate would join the lower house in this?  

With the resolution already going to the House plenary this week, there are other, more immediate questions to ask: Why are congressmen and women resorting to this process when this is clearly not a mode for charter change provided in the Constitution itself? Why are they confident that the Senate would approve the resolution? What were we, the watchdogs, doing that this got past us? What are the grassroots organizers and voters going to do if they think these proposed amendments to the Constitution are unacceptable?  

Yes, the questions do point back to you and me. If the Constitution is “bastardized” – a favorite word used by critics of charter change – we should share the blame. Because all the stakeholders, in and out of government, have never had a proper and sober discussion about the 1987 Constitution.  

In every administration, from the time of the first Aquino to the current Malacañang tenant, efforts to amend or revise the fundamental law have been floated or actively pursued. And each time, the opposition would, by reflex, oppose anything and everything being proposed as “self-serving” and “with a hidden agenda” on the part of the ruling party or majority – short of declaring the Constitution as infallible as the bible. 

In the communities, many organized groups, institutions, and opinion leaders are not helping achieve an objective and healthy information campaign. Instead of educating people about the pros and cons of the proposals, the proponents just parrot the government’s window-dressed line and the critics just say charter change is evil. 

In the media, we need a more balanced and independent view of the debate. We don’t content ourselves with presenting what each side says and deprive our audience of a conclusive take on every aspect of the debate. We don’t drop the issue and move on to the next coverage just because some senator with a flimsy analysis says charter change is dead. 

Charter change is not dead.  

For as long as the two chambers of Congress have their respective committee on constitutional amendments, lawmakers can and will rightfully work on proposals, and the possibility of any efforts finally passing exists year round. It’s not illegal, you know?  

President Duterte and his political lieutenants have made it clear that working toward changing our system of government from unitary to federal remains among their priorities. It is a proposal different from what the House committee has just approved, but we know that anything can happen when we start opening up the Constitution for review.  

The Senate, which has always insisted on voting separately from the House on any charter change bill, is dominated by blind followers of the President and those who can be convinced with how the proposals can ensure their political survival. How did watchdogs get the impression that we could let our guard down?  

And whether we like it or not, proposals that will be deliberated upon can only come from the legislators. The only two charter change modes available under the Constitution are: one, the current senators and representatives are convened as constituent assemby; two, a constitutional convention is formed by having members elected from the same geopolitical districts represented by the congressmen.  

There should have been a third mode available, where registered voters could directly propose amendments to the Constitution: people’s initiative. But remember the 1997 campaign? We assailed the Initiative and Referendum Act before the Supreme Court when supporters of then-president Fidel Ramos gathered enough signatures to remove the Constitution’s term limit on the president so he could seek reelection. The law was struck down as insufficient; now, 22 years later, there is no enabling law for the people’s initiative provision. 

There is, however, a chance for us to redeem ourselves. If the vote in the House is a foregone conclusion, then we can breathe down the Senate’s neck. If the Senate considers a charter change resolution, then we can run parallel consultations and town hall meetings where we have enough networks and influence. If the proposition is submitted to a plebiscite, then we exercise our power as voters to reject questionable proposals. 

Meanwhile, we have a public that, surveys showed, was “generally opposed to amending the Constitution” over the 3 decades before Duterte came to power. Again, this should not make stakeholders complacent. In another survey, done under this administration, 7 out of 10 admit to having little or no knowledge at all about the Constitution, making them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation. They are the hard work that awaits us. – Rappler.com