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Since 1997, when the first attempt was made to revise the Constitution, the Senate has stood like an immovable slab of concrete blocking all initiatives by charter revisionists.
The stubborn defiance has earned for the Senate the admiration of public intellectuals who regard the Constitution as sacred text and sectors who discern the selfish designs behind charter change, or Cha-Cha.
Yet we have to concede that the senators’ obstinacy has been driven mainly by self-preservation.
Emasculating the Senate seems to be a recurring obsession among members of the House, where most Cha-Cha efforts have started. Reducing the senators’ six-year term of office has been a recurring resolution, intended, in the view of observers, to weaken the potency of the Senate’s institutional independence and dampen their predisposition to act as gadflies to a sitting president.
But the Senate that has said “no” to Cha-Cha for decades and through several administrations is now willing to dance.
Why did the Senate yield? According to Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, this time the Senate will take the lead, or rather, has been asked by the President himself to take the lead, in amending the Constitution’s economic provisions.
In Zubiri’s ballroom, the once inflexible Senate will now show the House how to do the Cha-Cha. Not through People’s Initiative, which the President, according to Zubiri, has described as divisive, but through a Constituent Assembly where both chambers will vote separately.
To underscore his earnest dedication to Cha-Cha, Zubiri initially said the hearings would be led by veteran Senator Sonny Angara, head of the finance committee, rather than the neophyte Robin Padilla, chair of the constitutional amendments committee whose knowledge of the Constitution is as deep as a puddle.
But after a caucus that lasted, according to media reports, for more than three hours, the senators decided to transfer the responsibility to Padilla without offering an explanation. The former action star, surly and predisposed to shaming resource persons smarter than him, will now be charged with presiding over committee hearings on allowing foreign ownership in educational institutions, public utilities, and the advertising industry. (READ: Padilla first non-lawyer to head Senate charter change panel since 1986)
The scope of these amendments would call for the erudite inputs of constitution experts, business leaders, and economic thinkers. Smart people, in short.
Slap on the wrist
According to Zubiri, these three provisions were vetted by the President in a meeting with him and Speaker Martin Romualdez before the Speaker flew to Davos, Switzerland, as the President’s representative to the annual elite smooch fest.
The turnaround in committee assignments, however, could be seen as a slap on the wrist from his fellow senators. Zubiri may have overstepped when he eagerly accepted the President’s request without consulting the other senators, breaking the time-honored norm of collegiality.
But the trigger for the President’s request, the supposedly divisive signature drive to amend the charter, has shown no signs of slowing down.
By this week the so-called people’s initiative is expected to garner the signatures of 12% of voters nationwide, the threshold set by the Constitution. Albay Representative Joey Salceda sees ratification by July, in time for the President’s State of the Nation Address.
Why the persistence? It’s all about the numbers. The proposed amendment in the signature drive, that the two chambers vote as one instead of separately on charter amendments, gives the House the numerical advantage.
If the amendment is ratified, the House representatives can outvote the senators on any provision. They can expand the scope of the amendments to include other economic provisions. They can even introduce amendments to political provisions, such as term extensions for the President and themselves, and shorter terms for senators.
Malacañang could act shocked, wag its finger at the House, and then accept the amendments as an expression of democracy.
Of course, all of that is in the realm of conjecture. But stranger things have happened in politics in the last two years, as if we need reminding.
The signature campaign’s timetable, however, can be derailed by a legal challenge before the Supreme Court. The High Court is entitled to change its mind, although Cha-Cha opponents are certain that it won’t. But like I said, stranger things have happened.
That is where the Senate comes in. After all, three economic provisions are better than nothing. But with the smart-shaming Padilla helming the discussions, it would be tough attracting a half-decent roster of resource persons. The amendments could die from intellectual asphyxiation.
So is the Senate’s consent a Plan B for charter change, or was it all a ruse to buy time for the signature drive and dampen the senators’ opposition to charter amendments? The harder question: Was Zubiri set up? We hope not.
Regardless, the President seems poised to accomplish this year, July at the earliest, what no other post-EDSA president has done. He would have amended the Constitution with only token resistance from senators. And all he had to do was ask nicely. – Rappler.com
Joey Salgado is a former journalist, and a government and political communications practitioner. He served as spokesperson for former Vice President Jejomar Binay.