What You Need to Know About the Proposed Charter Change Deliberations.

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The House Committee on Constitutional Amendments is set to re-open discussions on reforming the constitution when sessions open this month, said Cagayan de Oro Representative and Committee Chair Rufus Rodriguez. The Committee shall discuss the proposal of the League of Municipalities in the Philippines (LMP), a body composed of 1,489 town mayors — mostly allied with Duterte and his administration.

The League of Municipalities of the Philippines previously called to amend the 1987 Constitution to explicitly stipulate the ruling of the Supreme Court in Mandanas v. Purisima, among other reasons. The Mandanas ruling expresses that each Local Government Unit (LGU) shall get its just share from all national taxes, which in turn declares Internal Revenue Allotments (IRA) unconstitutional. If executed correctly, this will help LGUs address their needs better — needs previously unmet but eventually floated to the surface as consequences of the pandemic.

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The Palace expectedly denied Duterte’s involvement in the call for charter change. According to Spokesperson Harry Roque, the whole government is currently focused on COVID-19, and so charter change is not a priority. However, it can be recalled that Duterte has been adamant to shift the structure of the government to federalism since his election in 2016.

The Department of Interior and Local Government Federalism and Constitutional Reform program (CORE), the primary arm of the government focusing on the move, also listed two other surgical amendments in their proposal: loosening of restrictions on foreign investments as well as political and electoral reforms.

DILG Federalism and Constitutional Reform administrator Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said that critics should stop questioning the motives of the proponents and instead focus on how the move to reform the constitution can be beneficial. However, critics, including Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Franklin Drilon, fear that this will be used to serve the interest of a select few, postpone the 2022 elections, and extend the term of the President and his allies.

What you need to know about Charter Change

Charter Change or Cha-Cha is the colloquial term referring to the revision and/or amendment of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

The first attempt for Cha-Cha was under Former President Fidel V. Ramos. Since his term, every administration has seen an attempt for a Cha-Cha, but none came to fruition. This was largely because of the laborious procedures needed to be fulfilled in order to pull it off.

First, it must be clarified if the changes shall be in the form of revisions or amendments. Amendments are changes that do not affect the structure and fundamentals of the Constitution and generally affect only one provision. If a change entails adding, reducing, or deleting provisions, without any impact on the basic constitutional principles involved, it is considered an amendment.

Revisions, on the other hand, refer to much bigger changes — a rewriting of the whole or substantial entirety of the Constitution or changes that affect two or more provisions that basically alter the structure and fundamentals of the instrument.

Extending the term limit of an elected official, for example, is considered an amendment because it does not impact any fundamental constitutional principle.

Meanwhile, restructuring the current set-up to resemble a federal state is considered a revision because Section 1 Article II, Declaration of Principles and State Policies, of the 1987 Constitution provides that “The Philippines is a democratic and republican state.” Such a change would also drastically affect the provisions under Article X on Local Government.

Second, the method or process of proposing and approving Cha-Cha must be decided.

Here is a simple table to compare the three bodies that may propose amendments to the Constitution, namely: directly by Congress acting as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass), a Constitutional Convention (Con-con), or through a People’s Initiative.

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Note that only a Con-Ass or a Con-con may propose to revise the Constitution. A People’s Initiative cannot propose revisions.

Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, but all are valid. However, considering that the majority of elected representatives in Congress are allies of the administration, a Con-Ass may not be the best way to change the Constitution.

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According to Dante Gatmaytan, UP Law Professor, an assembly of “yes men” in Congress is unlikely to produce a reliable constitution. A serious deliberation founded on a variety of views will be beneficial in drafting the fundamental law of the land, he added.

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However, the process of voting in the two houses of Congress — the Senate and the House of Representatives — is unclear as the Constitution provides no guidance on whether they must vote together or separately. If the two houses vote jointly, the nearly 300-member House will effectively outnumber the 23 Senators, rendering the voice of the Senate irrelevant. If the two houses vote separately, the proposals can be deliberated by the two houses at their own pace.

Lastly, once the proposals pass these stages, it shall be discussed and subjected to the judgment of the voters through ratification. In the period allotted prior to the national plebiscite, the revisions or amendments can be discussed in public through the media, educational institutions, and public assemblies. This will be the right time to air opposition to potentially abusive provisions such as term limits.

Monitoring the changes in the constitution should be a high priority for Filipinos as the provisions in the text will have a direct impact on everyone. Proposals must be read closely and discussed extensively. Criticisms must be expressed and freely debated to avoid the passage of questionable provisions.

However, the current events in the country may be a source of worry for some, as there have been reports of arrests of critics and protesters while the country is on quarantine. The recent shut down of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, and the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa for the case of libel, has also sent a chilling effect on media organizations and practitioners, the government’s foremost watchdog. These circumstances, as well as the pandemic that continues to ravage the country, can have negative effects on the otherwise democratic process of changing the constitution.

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