Renewed pursuit of amending Philippine constitution driven by upcoming Arroyo appointments of justices to Supreme Court

New cha-cha move tied to ‘Arroyo Supreme Court’


by CARMELA FONBUENA, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak | 11/22/2008 4:13 AM

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Recent developments to amend the 1987 Constitution in the lower House show how the administration congressmen carefully planned their strategy. Their disastrous attempt in the 13th Congress taught them whose support really matters—the Supreme Court.

According to Rep. Luis Villafuerte, president of Arroyo’s political party, Kampi, said the goal of the new effort at charter change is bring the issue to the Supreme Court and force it to rule on whether the two houses of Congress should vote jointly or separately in amending the charter.

Arroyo critics have expressed fear that a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court would rule in favor of joint voting. And since President Arroyo will be appointing seven justices in the Supreme Court next year, the best time to push for charter change is now.

Former Senator Franklin Drilon said he knew it was just a matter of time before Arroyo’s allies would make their move.

As of last count, the resolution to convene Congress into a Constitutent Assembly already has at least 156 signatures.

“The plan is to bring the issue of voting jointly or separately before the Supreme Court. The only way that charter change will succeed is when the Supreme Court rules in favor of joint voting. But not even [Senate President Juan] Ponce Enrile will approve that,” Drilon told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

In 2006, congressmen pushing for charter change via people’s initiative lost by a single vote in the Supreme Court.

This new attempt at charter change was born last September when Bohol Rep. Adam Relson Jala, a member of the administration party Lakas-CMD, filed a petition before the Supreme Court, urging it to validate joint voting of the combined members of both houses of Congress as the proper procedure in convening into a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution.

Hardly any attention was given to Jala when he filed on August 13 House Resolution No. 730, which calls on the Senate and the House of Representatives to convene into a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution. Jala wants a shift to a unicameral system.

Joint voting

A three-fourths vote of Congress is required to convene into a Constituent Assembly. Joint voting—as opposed to separate voting by both houses of Congress—will make the 23-member Senate irrelevant.

In separate voting, a three-fourths vote is required in each chamber to convene into a Constituent Assembly. That means at least 179 congressmen and 18 senators, voting separately, should agree.

In joint voting, the three-fourths vote would require a total of 196 signatures regardless of whether the 23 senators participate.

A week after Jala filed the petition, the Supreme Court junked it on the ground that it was “premature” because there was no conflict or controversy over the issue of charter change.

Political observers said it was only a matter of time before the administration congressmen would again push for a Constituent Assembly in order to give the High Court the legal basis to decide on the issue.

The Supreme Court is key

Making sure that their steps would not be blocked is a hard lesson they learned in the 13th Congress.

Similar to Jala’s proposal, then House Speaker Jose De Venecia Jr. wanted a unicameral parliamentary form of government. But when the Senate opposed the move to convene into a Constituent Assembly,  they instead pursued People’s Initiative (PI).

Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) and PI are the two other ways to amend the Constitution.

Con-Con was the process taken in 1971 to draft a new Constitution. Delegates to the Con-Con were elected by the people.

In PI, the law provides that the petition should be backed by the signatures of at least 12 percent of the total registered voters. In addition, least 3 percent from every legislative district should approve the petition.  Failure to reach 3 percent in just one district would be enough to block the initiative.

The problem with PI is that while there is Republic Act No. 6735 or the “People’s Initiative and Referendum Act”, this only applies to minor amendments to the Constitution. It does not apply to major revisions of the Constitution such as shifting to a parliamentary system of government.

In the 2006 charter change attempt, administration congressmen, governors, mayors, and the group Sigaw ng Bayan collected signatures nationwide to support charter change via PI.

But the Senators, the Catholic church, and civil society opposed it. The 2006 cha-cha attempt almost succeeded were it not for the split Supreme Court (7-7) decision on the PI.

At present, the opposition-dominated upper chamber is still firmly opposed to administration congressmen’s charter change initiatives.

In the 14th Congress, the administration lost its staunchest charter change advocate—former House Speaker Jose De Venecia. Nevertheless, it remains determined to pursue charter change, and the strategy is back to Con-Ass.

Reports are rife that some administration senators will also sign the resolution calling on Congress to convene into a Constituent Assembly.

Mastermind: Nograles

Congressman Luis Villafuerte told ANC Friday that it is no less than House Speaker Prospero Nograles who is leading the campaign to get signatures for cha-cha.

The fresh move at charter change was appartely firmed up last  August. A week after Rep. Adam Jala of Bohol filed HR 730, Nograles also filed on August 20 HR 737, which proposes to scrap the 40 percent limit on foreign ownership. Being the House Speaker, his resolution gained ground immediately.

In September, the committee on constitutional amendments held hearings on the resolutions. The committee did not go as far as discussing the merits of the resolutions, but they agreed to hold four public hearings to consult the public on charter change.

But Nograles struck down what the committee agreed on, saying the chamber doesn’t have the money for public hearings.

Instead, he proposed that all congressmen should consult their districts. On September 13, Nograles instructed them to consult their districts on three priority issues—charter change, reproductive health bill, and the extension of the land acquisition and distribution component of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

Meanwhile, on his own, Nograles collected signatures to support his resolution. On October 1, his office released a statement saying that his resolution had gained 160 signatures or a clear majority.

Although Kampi had supported Nograles as early as October, deputy Speaker Amelita Villarosa told reporters back then that constitutionalists in the party knew that Nograles’s bill had to be corrected.

As a law-making body, Congress cannot propose amendments to the Constitution. It must first convene a Constitutional Assembly, which is the body tasked to amend and revise the Constitution.

The new resolution calling on Congress to convene a Constituent Assembly, which has been signed by at least 156 congressmen, is the logical step in pushing for charter change.

Extend President’s term?

Nograles, however, said his original resolution only intends to amend the economic provisions of the Constiution which limit foreign ownership. He said the US-led global financial crisis can be an opportunity for the country if it is equipped to attract foreign investments.

“Our strong economic fundamentals should be our best selling point in offering refuge to relocating American investments. However, we cannot maximize our potential as an attractive destination for investments which are now relocating out of the US because of our equity restrictions,” he said.

But even if Nograles’ resolution does not include a proposal to extend the term of the President, critics of President Arroyo have been constantly watchful of any move by administration congressmen to touch the Constitution.

They said that once a Constituent Assembly is formed, there is no guarantee that it will limit its amendments or revisions to economic provisions. They said the main objective of this effort is to extend the term of the president.

However, the eldest son of President Arroyo, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo, earlier denied to abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak that there was an attempt to extend Arroyo’s term.

“First of all, I don’t see any legal way to extend her term,” he told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak. “How can economic provisions be used to extend the term of the President?,” he said.

Many people, however, no longer believe the administration’s pronouncements on charter change.

“Action speaks louder than words. The latest cha-cha move in the House initiated by no less than the president’s son and Kampi stalwarts reveals the gameplan for President Arroyo’s continued rule via Charter change. We shall fight this at all cost,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño.

SOURCE: ABS-CBN News Online, new-cha-cha-move-tied-arroyo-supreme-court

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