At a webinar last Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes chaired by Senator Francis Pangilinan held a hearing on the timeliness and procedural issues as well as the substantives (suggested resolutions by both houses on convening as a constituent assembly to amend restrictive economic provisions on land, natural resources, public utilities, media, advertising, and educational institutions). The issue raised was whether there is need to amend or revise the Constitution, given the state of the pandemic and the national and local elections in 2022, and whether these should be done through a Constitutional Convention or a Constituent Assembly. If by the latter, should the Senate and the House vote jointly or separately?
There was unanimity in opinion among former Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza, former Constitutional Commissioners Christian Monsod, Adolf Azcuna, and myself who were among the resource persons, that meeting jointly by the Senate and the House but voting separately should be the mode for amending or revising the Charter.
But should the Constitution be amended today, during this time of pandemic and economic contraction? Justice Mendoza emphasized the need to put all our energies and resources to meeting the two challenges, that of responding to the pandemic and voter education for the election in 2022, and the preparation for clean, honest, and credible elections that shall spell good government and demand the patriotism of everyone. Amending the charter now is therefore not a prudent step.
Com. Monsod’s position paper (reaction to the Resolution of Both Houses -2 or RBH-2 authored by Senators Tolentino and Bato) provides cogent arguments on why amendments and revisions of provisions that would further liberalize the economy in order to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) should not be undertaken. He says: “It is dangerous and devious because it is a wholesale transfer of power from the Constitution to the Congress on determining the limitations on foreign ownership of these resources. Once the phrase is inserted, the door is opened wider to corruption or transactional legislation. It is a new and bigger source of illicit money than the pork barrel. Are we willing to entrust our legislators with that kind of power? What counts in FDI is its contribution to raising the trajectory of our technological development. Despite promises to the mining industry, we have no industrialization based on our natural resources.” He notes rising inequality by citing the 1,000 richest in the world (including 13 Filipino billionaires) who managed to recoup their COVID-19 losses in just 9 months, while it would take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the impact of the epidemic. FDI played only a minor role in the growth of high performing economies. Among factors that affect investment decisions (which are among those I also cited in my arguments) are adequate infrastructure, skills level, quality of general regulatory framework, clear rules of the game, graft and corruption, political instability, weak institutions, and rule of law.
“Only corrupt legislators and greedy elite businessmen will benefit most from this amendment. FDI will come mostly from Chinese businessmen because Western economies are experiencing showdowns,” he notes. He concludes by saying that amending the Constitution is not likely to open new doors because they are already open. It is more critical to address real hindrances.”
Com. Azcuna favors amendments but not to touch “bedrock principles” that are meant to protect Filipinos and the state’s patrimony and resources. The wrong placement of the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” can compromise the state’s patrimony and resources. “It is important that when you tinker with the Constitution, tinker knowledgeably,” he said.
I dealt with the issues of trust as shown by earlier initiatives of three presidents that failed because people realized that they were prompted by self-serving motivations. Likewise, people’s belief that once the floodgates are open for change, it won’t stop with easing up restrictive economic provisions but will move for other changes such as extension of terms. The pandemic period is not the right time. It is a period of instability and charter change would distract efforts that should focus on the pandemic and addressing the economic contraction. Too, that foreign investors are not as much bothered by ownership issues as they are with difficulties in starting a business and dealing with concerns such as graft and corruption. Finally, it is important that people understand the Constitution, some provisions of which legislators want to amend. As Com. Monsod explained, social justice is the “heart” of the Constitution, and specifically aimed at addressing the rights of the marginalized. What is now being proposed will not alleviate the growing hunger and poverty of the poor.
With Constitution Day, February 2, only a few days away, we hope that legislators and the people would remember to honor the constitution by not “tinkering” with it or “trivializing” it.
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