Senators remain lukewarm to Charter change

In a move to win members of the Senate to the proposal for a revision of the Constitution via a Constituent Assembly, new Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said last Wednesday that the House and the Senate must vote separately for its approval.

Former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez had insisted that in the Constituent Assembly, the House and Senate should sit as one body and vote together at one session. With 297 congressmen and only 24 senators, the House would simply dominate the proceedings.

The senators rejected his position, of course, pointing out that in all provisions of the Constitution – in the approval of laws, for example, and in impeachment proceedings – the two chambers always voted separately. The problem is that in the Constitution’s Article XVII on Amendments or Revisions, Section 1 merely provided: “Any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by: (1) The Congress, upon a vote of three fourths of all its members; or (2) a Constitutional Convention.”

Speaker Arroyo has now cleared this disagreement – the two chambers will vote separately. The Senate will thus maintain its separate power and authority; it will not be swept aside ignominiously by an interpretation favoring joint voting.

Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, president of the administration party PDP-Laban, welcomed Speaker Arroyo’s statement. “That should settle the issue on how the vote is taken and counted,” he said. “We can now focus on the substance of federalism.”

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, however, said the senators are still not inclined to support any move to revise the Constitution, whether by Constituent Assembly or by People’s Initiative, or even by a Constitutional Convention. Sen. Francis Pangilinan of the Liberal Party maintained his opposition to any revision or amendment of the Constitution at this time.

It is President Duterte who really wants a new constitution providing for a federal form of government that will correct a historic injustice to the Moro people, he said. Under a federal system, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would be one of 18 regions, under a national government. These regions would have autonomous powers greater than those now granted to provincial and other local governments.

With the recent enactment of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the President has achieved his basic goal. Federalism under a new constitution would merely create other similarly autonomous regions, so the Bangsamoro would appear to have authority and resources not much different from those of the other regions.

The continuing opposition of many senators to a Constituent Assembly, even if the Senate and the House vote separately, stands in the way of the move for a new constitution. There is also the Pulse Asia opinion survey last June in which 62 percent opposed the proposed shift to federalism at this time.

In the next ten months, as the Constituent Assembly deliberates on the proposed constitution, an information campaign may be able to overcome the present public opposition which, in turn, could also convince the senators to review their own opposition and see the benefits of a new federal system of government.