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Before 2023 finally bade us goodbye, Speaker Martin Romualdez announced that in 2024 the House of Representatives will seriously pursue the amendment of the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. There have been numerous attempts at changing our Constitution, but all have failed.
Pertinently, the Speaker promised to limit the amendment to the said economic provisions only, thus the branding of this move as Economic Cha-Cha (charter change). As expected though, his candor was met with stern rebuke from several sectors, which included Senate President Migz Zubiri and the usual Cha-Cha naysayers.
While Economic Cha-Cha was the advertised battlecry, behind the scenes were multiple efforts to change the Constitution through a People’s Initiative (PI). One PI effort was about amending the restrictive economic provisions, but another was proposing a revision of the charter. Both PIs however really had no chance to succeed because there is still no law to govern its operational implementation as required by the Constitution. The Comelec simply cannot unilaterally act as if PI was already sanctioned with its own resolution. The Supreme Court would have eventually stopped both PI efforts.
But once they became known, these PI moves rattled everyone. Even the powers-that-be could not ignore the blatant disregard of these PI groups of the rule of law and well-established constitutional prescriptions. However, their response to the PI efforts was surprising. Senate President Zubiri announced that with the blessing of President Bongbong Marcos, the Senate will now lead Economic Cha-Cha. This Senate-led effort is Resolution of Both Houses No. 6 (RBH #6).
RBH #6 contained only three amendment proposals, namely:
1. On the operation of a public utility in Article XII, Section 11;
2. The education sector in Article IX, Section 4 (2);
3. Advertising in Article XVI, Section 11 (2).
Initially, most people thought that even Speaker Romualdez was supportive of RBH #6 given that this had the blessing of his cousin in Malacañang. But the PI pushers continued to persist. In fact, they became emboldened enough to reveal their true intent. And to nobody’s surprise, they pointed to the Speaker as one of their strongest backers. This revelation led to a bitter word-war between the Senate and the House of Representatives.
As of this writing, the PI groups seem to have relented. Senate President Zubiri has renewed his strong push for RBH #6 and the same will be tackled by the Senate forthwith. Speaker Romualdez has also clarified his support for RBH #6 and committed the House of Representatives will take cognizance of it. So, the question now is, how should Congress, acting as what we commonly known as the Con-Ass or Constituent Assembly, deal with RBH #6?
It is important to point out that Congress, as Con-Ass, will only be offering an amendment proposal. Their work here is essentially to present recommendations for voters to consider. Their proposal only becomes binding after we signify our approval or more specifically, when they are “ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite” (See Article XVII, Section 4). As taxpayers, we are slated to shell out P13 billion to cover the expenses for a plebiscite. Note that this amount is pegged for just one plebiscite for this year. The cost can jump exponentially if the proponents of the dubious PI get their way.
The 1987 Constitution actually offers no details on how a Con-Ass should work. The only certainty is that even as a Con-Ass, the two chambers of Congress will function separately. Meaning, they will not deliberate and vote as one body. They can, if they choose to do so, come together symbolically or for ceremonial purposes. But ultimately, they will work separately and the specifics of the process are to be determined by Congress itself.
One way for Con-Ass to go about their task is the Bernas way. According to the late Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, “both houses might decide to do it the way they pass ordinary legislation — that is, as they are where they are but voting separately by a three-fourths majority, and only coming together, the way they do in ordinary legislation, to reconcile differences.”
This means RBH #6 is to be treated like a regular bill where one chamber considers it first and thereafter transmits it to the other chamber. This process accounts for possible differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives and hence, some kind of “bi-cam mechanism” is needed at the end. This seems to be the path Senate President Zubiri and Speaker Romualdez are contemplating.
The main concern to raise with this approach is that there is no assurance that RBH #6 will remain as is. Subjecting it to the legislative mill presumes the amendment proposals are yet to be determined. Meaning, the work of the Con-Ass will also include the formulation of the amendment proposals. Thus, raising the fear of many Filipinos that Cha-Cha will eventually be about removing term limits.
However, the Bernas way can be modified slightly by requiring both chambers to agree on the amendment proposals from the very start, with each committing to tackle only the agreed proposals and nothing else. In this case, that would be RBH #6. Hopefully, this can somehow allay public anxiety with Cha-Cha. Needless to say, each chamber would separately deal with RBH #6. They can work on it simultaneously, but still completely separate.
Furthermore, the deliberations on RBH #6 should be a strict Yes versus No debate. There should be no room for altering the proposed amendments contained in this resolution. The proponents must justify a Yes vote, while opposers must justify a No vote. Obviously, all sides must be heard. And not just in the chamber halls, but also in the public sphere.
RBH #6 cannot be deliberated upon like it was just a regular bill. Keep in mind that the aim of the Con-Ass is to vote on amendment proposals. This means that both the Senate and the House of Representatives must be tackling the same subject matter. They will not be able to properly perform their mandate as a Con-Ass if they actually end up discussing different amendment proposals.
After a sufficient period to listen to all sides on this matter, the Senate and the House of Representatives must each vote on RBH #6. And for the same to carry, each must meet the 3/4 voting threshold. Notably, if one chamber fails to meet this requirement, then RBH #6 is deemed rejected.
If both the Senate and the House of Representatives meet the 3/4 voting threshold, then there should be a ceremony where the chamber leaders affix their respective signatures on RBH #6 indicating clearly that this is an act of Congress under Article XVII, Section 1 (1) of the 1987 Constitution. The resolution should then be directly endorsed to the Commission on Election with an instruction to hold a plebiscite. As per the Constitution, the plebiscite “shall be held not earlier than 60 days nor later than 90 days after the approval of such amendment or revision.”
A warning though. The Bernas way or even the process recommended here will not work if there are other amendment proposals involved. The introduction by either chamber of amendment proposals other than the restrictive economic provisions contained in RBH #6 will scuttle the entire effort completely. And any noise from the PI pushers will surely kill Economic Cha-Cha altogether. – Rappler.com
Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.