By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Tuesday, May 19, questioned Congress’ move to grant broadcast network ABS-CBN a temporary franchise to operate.
At the Senate Committee on Public Services’ preliminary hearing on the proposed provisional franchise allowing ABS-CBN’s continued operations, Enrile admitted having doubts on whether or not such a measure is constitutional.
The provisional franchise bill being deliberated in the House of Representatives seeks to authorize the media giant to resume operations until October 31, 2020.
“As far as provisional authority being given, I have my own doubt whether Congress can do that,” Enrile said.
When asked by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, public services panel vice chair, to elaborate on his position, Enrile said: “There must be a certain degree of permanence of any legislative action; it cannot be ad hoc.”
“Congress must enact a law and that law must be complete in every respect. If Congress can grant a temporary franchise, what is the compelling reason for Congress not to grant a permanent franchise with a reasonable period of 25 years?”
Enrile advised the younger lawmakers against “playing around” with the Constitution, which mandated that franchises, certificates, and authorization for the operation of public utilities shall not be valid for more than 50 years.
“You are not a delegated power like the NTC (National Telecommunication Commission) that you can exercise quasi-judicial power or legislative power,” he pointed out.
“If you think there is a national emergency, why don’t you ask President Duterte to certify the bill [as urgent] so you can shorten the period of deliberations?” he asked.
With the expiration of ABS-CBN’s 1995 franchise last May 4, Enrile said Congress should now decide whether to finally terminate the broadcast company’s operations, or extend it for another 25 years.
Later in the hearing, he said Congress could also consider expanding the NTC’s powers to authorize it to extend the validity of permits it issues to utility companies “instead of tinkering with the Constitution as if it were a [simple] statute.”
Temporary franchise valid
Other legal luminaries, however, believe that Congress has all the authority to set up terms of franchises granted to companies, including their validity.
Senate Minority Leader Frankin Drilon said the 1987 Constitution does not provide for a minimum validity of legislative franchises.
Drilon, former Senate president and Justice Secretary, pointed out that the under the Constitution, the only limitations to Congress are the origination clause, which mandates that franchise bills should emanate from the House of Representatives before the Senate’s approval; and the 50-year maximum validity on franchises.
“There is no limitation on the plenary power of Congress,” Drilon said.
He also noted that despite the congressmen’s pronouncements, the House bill does mention that the franchise that will be granted to ABS-CBN will be “provisional” and that the franchise will still be granted thru law.
Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno agreed with Drilon. He said the legislative branch may grant a franchise that is valid for months.
“The length of the provisional franchise is left to the discretion of Congress, so that’s perfectly allowed by the Constitution. And the exercise of that power depends on the wisdom of Congress. And with jurisprudence, the exercise of Congress, cannot be questioned,” Puno said.
“It’s a political question,” he added.
Contrary to Enrile’s proposal, Puno also said that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers to the NTC, which operates under the executive department.
Congress mandate, he added, is also not limited to crafting laws. Puno said it also includes investigations, where resources persons could be charged for contempt.
“This a quasi-judicial power,” Puno said, referring to Enrile’s contentions.
Law professor Fr. Ranhilio Aquino also echoed Drilon’s statements.
The NTC, last May 5, issued a cease and desist order stopping ABS-CBN’s operation on the basis of its expired franchise.
Acknowledging its failure to act on the franchise renewal application of the network, the House of Representatives decided to pass a provisional authority measure. House leaders said this will allow them to carefully deliberate on whether or not to renew the franchise for 25 years.
The House bill has yet to be transmitted to the Senate, after congressmen withdrew Monday, the second reading approval of the measure due to possible constitutional issues.