By Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President
The congressional initiative to change the Constitution has sparked serious – bordering on acrimonious – debate in media and in the halls of Congress.
The back and forth among critics and proponents of Charter Change in general, and federalism, in particular, has obscured what should be the real objective of any effort to amend our Constitution: to improve the lives of our people.
When the Constitution was drafted and ratified following the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the nation was still hurting from the bitter wounds inflicted by martial law. The framers put in place provisions to prevent future leaders from abusing power. The protection and respect for human dignity and human rights were made paramount constitutional mandates. It was a Charter enshrining the noble and enduring ideals of freedom and human dignity.
On the other hand, nationalism and a Filipino-first mindset permeated the drafting of the economic provisions which imposed strict restrictions on foreign ownership. It was a response to perceived foreign control of our economy, at the expense of Filipino businesses, and a way to protect national patrimony.
The Constitution is not written in stone. If it were a document both sacred and inviolate, then the framers would not have provided the mechanisms for introducing amendments. The fact that these mechanisms were included shows that the framers intended future generations to participate in the reshaping of the Constitution to make it relevant to the times.
However, convening Congress into a Constituent Assembly, while among the mechanisms provided for in the Constitution, appears unpopular as an option owing to the belief that it will be used for personal political gain. Several proposed amendments lifting term limits and extending the terms of incumbent legislators tend to validate this view. There is growing distrust in the process, which is not the way to start a historic undertaking like revising the Constitution. Public trust and support must be present from the start of the process.
The shift to federalism, offered as the main objective of the Constitutional overhaul, likewise demands thorough discussion and greater transparency. It requires informed choice, not blind faith. Framing federalism as an instant cure to chronic poverty and underdevelopment is deceptive. The shift to federalism will be initially chaotic and potentially destabilizing. That much needs to be told. Assurances must be made that clustering localities into federal states will result in shared prosperity, not shared misery.
Likewise, forcing the public to trust the wisdom of their representatives who may have self-serving motives is undemocratic. We need to hear the voices of all sectors, especially farmers, workers, the youth, women, and the marginalized. A Constitutional Convention offers such an opportunity.
I have always maintained that two key issues stand in the way of sustained and inclusive economic growth: the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution and the failure to fully empower our local governments through decentralization. Addressing these two key issues now rather than the highly contentious political provisions would spur the economy and provide jobs to our people. Jobs should be our overriding concern, not term extensions.
We need to urgently amend the constitutional provision on foreign ownership. It is outdated and completely out of step with present-day economic realities. At a time when the free flow of foreign capital has jumpstarted economic growth in neighboring countries, our Constitution sets limits on their entry. Easing foreign ownership restrictions on key sectors will open up the economy further which in turn will bring in more foreign direct investments (FDIs). More FDIs will lead to more jobs and livelihood for Filipinos.
We need to enhance devolution and provide a greater share of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) to poor 4th and 5th class municipalities. It has been 26 years since the Local Government Code took effect in 1992. Sadly, we are not even halfway to attaining genuine and meaningful local autonomy.
The share of IRA in local budgets is the best measure of local autonomy. It is a sad fact that in many municipalities without a vibrant local economy, their IRA is the main source for the salaries of their employees and operational expenses. They become dependent on IRA and by extension, on the dispenser of IRA, which is the national government.
Dependence on IRA will only decrease if their local revenues increase. This, in turn, will only happen if smaller local governments had a greater share of our national taxes so they could afford to invest in programs that could pump prime their local economies.
I have long championed the demand to amend the Local Government Code. One amendment pertains to the criteria for determining IRA. At present, the larger the land area and population of an LGU, the larger the slice of the IRA pie. This may sound logical at first, but the reality is that smaller LGUs have smaller incomes, so they are the ones in greater need of a bigger allotment.
There must also be measures to ensure strict compliance with the procedure by which the IRA is released. The law provides that the transfer of allotments should be automatic. But the process had been abused before, in order to make local officials more pliant to the wishes of whoever is in power.
In making these proposals, it is not my intention to second guess Congress. We need national unity to move forward, but the raging debate over Charter Change is sowing discord in our body politic that could be destabilizing and divisive. We need to remind the proponents of Charter Change and federalism that one does not sell the destination without a road map. More importantly, the public should be part of the journey.