Last week, the House of Representatives announced that it will be resuming its deliberation on amending the 1987 Constitution through a Constituent Assembly. The move is said to be a priority of the current House leadership, and with this imprimatur, one can expect little or no opposition from the members of the lower chamber.
At the Senate, a senator is said to have filed a similar measure to convene a Constituent Assembly. The members of the upper chamber, according to news reports, are set to hold a caucus to discuss how they would proceed with the proposal. What stands out, however, is the rather muted and guarded response of some senators to charter change, a contrast to their immovable and united opposition in the past.
The proponents of Charter amendments offer two different reasons for their initiative. At the House, it has been emphasized that the amendments will focus only on the economic provisions of the Constitution. The chair of the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments dismissed criticisms by invoking the pandemic and its negative impact on the economy. Amending the so-called restrictive provisions of the Constitution, the congressman maintained, will help ease the entry of badly needed foreign investments and help the country recover.
The Senate, on the other hand, offers another explanation for the revival of charter change. According to the Senate president, the President himself wanted to amend the provisions governing party-list groups in order to stop alleged communist fronts from supposedly exploiting the party-list system to advance their agenda. One report, however, claimed the chief executive wanted the party-list system abolished totally.
Regardless of the reasons given and the justifications offered, the move to amend the Constitution is ill-timed.
Historically, these efforts are vigorously undertaken near the end of the terms of office of incumbent legislators, which gives rise to suspicions that such amendments will benefit them. Previous administrations have tried this and failed largely because of opposition from one chamber, namely the Senate, and the public. The motives of sitting legislators tinkering with the Constitution a year before the scheduled election will always be suspect. Despite repeated assurances from some legislators that they will not touch on the so-called political provisions, doubts on the real motive remain.
In 2018, the House leadership revived charter change with the goal of changing the form of government to federalism. The proponents asserted that federalism would, among others, cure our decades of economic malaise and bring prosperity to all local governments. Today, charter change is again being offered as a magic bullet that will solve our economic woes that resulted from the pandemic. That is incorrect and misleading.
The worldwide pandemic has hit even the major economies. It would be naive, if not disingenuous, to declare that private investments from these economies will immediately make a beeline for the Philippines once we remove the restrictive provisions in the Constitution.
The preference for a Constituent Assembly in itself raises alarm bells. Proponents assert that amending the economic provisions is an urgent matter and constituting both houses of Congress into a body to amend the Constitution will address this urgency. The argument loses its grounding when viewed from the perspective of the other supposed reason, that of amending or abolishing the party-list system as a hedge against communism. A simple law will fix it, not a charter revision. Whether such a move would improve our political system or end supposed communist intrusion, as alleged by the administration, is subject to debate.
There is no urgency in amending the Constitution All branches of government should focus on the pandemic. As I have said before, revising the Constitution is a process that should not be rushed. Given our historical experience with charter change, the probability that the assembly will be used to push political amendments to benefit incumbents remains high.
What we need during this pandemic is coherent, caring, and competent government, not charter change. Yet we have seen how in the midst of this pandemic, our legislators approved to deny ABS-CBN a franchise, passed the Anti-Terror Law, and rewarded themselves with generous pork allocations. Appealing to the better angels of some legislators might as well be an exercise in folly.