Insufficient safeguards

MANILA, Philippines–With the GRP-MILF-MOA in limbo and the Republic of the Philippines at war with rogue MILF forces, President Macapagal-Arroyo’s partisans could no longer use the peace process to show the alleged urgency of Charter change. Incredibly, the MOA seeks to parcel out our country’s territory and to subvert its sovereignty. Amazing how anyone could have expected our people to ratify these villainous propositions.

Growing opposition to Cha-cha. Designed to open the doors to Cha-cha, the MOA is instead closing them. Already, three past Presidents of the Philippines (Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada) and elder statespersons (like former Senate President Jovito R. Salonga) have called for the postponement of any Charter change until after GMA leaves office on June 30, 2010. The same position has been echoed by many Catholic bishops (like Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president Angel Lagdameo), religious leaders (like Bro. Mike Velarde), senators, educators, businessmen, civil society and mainstream media.

Nonetheless, GMA’s cheerers are undaunted. For a starter, the House of Representatives Committee on Constitutional Reforms has voted to hold four “public consultations” on the necessity and mode of revising the Charter. To spice up the stakes, the Palace announced the “speedy release” of pork barrel, allocated at P250 million per senator and P70 million per congressman. In lieu of the MOA, GMA’s allies are now latching on Joint Resolution 10 (JR 10) calling for a constitutional assembly (Con-ass) to propel federalism.

For his part, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., the main sponsor of the resolution, passionately argues that there are enough safeguards to bar GMA from taking a free ride on JR 10. Indeed, JR 10 specifically provides that the incumbent president shall serve only until 2010 and “shall not be qualified to run for the same office under the Constitution.” JR 10 also states that Congress shall convene the Con-ass “for the purpose of adopting a federal system of government,” and nothing else. Furthermore, Senator Pimentel included a 63-page annex meticulously setting out the revisions he wants. Citing these and other safeguards, he assures us that GMA cannot use the Con-ass to perpetuate herself in office, either through term extension or through the adoption of the parliamentary system.

No foolproof safeguards. With due respect to the esteemed senator, I believe JR 10 cannot bar Congress—once convened as the Con-ass—from amending his proposals and from including the parliamentary system in its agenda. Under our Bill of Rights, Congress cannot pass irrepealable laws.

If Congress can amend or repeal laws through future legislation, the more so can it alter or amend its own resolutions. Note that a resolution to convene a Con-ass does not even need presidential intervention. Neither does an amendment of such resolution.

Moreover, the JR 10 provisions governing the procedures to be observed in the Con-ass can be deemed “internal rules” that are always subject to modification at the sole discretion of the legislature. The Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 16, 3) has vested in each house of Congress the power “to determine the rules of its proceedings.” In the exercise of such power, the legislature is paramount. The Supreme Court cannot intrude upon that “exclusive realm without running afoul of constitutional principles?” (Santiago vs. Guingona, Nov. 18, 1998)

The only exception to this doctrine is when the internal rule of procedure violates the Constitution, in which case the Supreme Court may intervene—not to impose its will on Congress or the Con-ass but to uphold the constitutional provision violated by the internal rule of Congress or the Con-ass.

Thus, in Arroyo vs. De Venecia (April 14, 1997), the Court ruled that it could not inquire into allegations that, in enacting a law, the House of Representatives failed to comply with its own rules on quorum, absent any showing of a violation of the Constitution or the rights of private individuals. The Court relied on the Journal of the House showing the presence of a quorum.

On the other hand, the issue of whether the two houses of Congress—once convened into a Con-ass—may vote jointly or separately to propose constitutional revisions shall ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court because such issue involves the interpretation of Sec. 1 of Art. XVII of the Constitution. As discussed in my July 20, 2008 column, the Court could affirm a joint vote to give our people the opportunity to determine during the ensuing plebiscite whether they want the parliamentary system.

No constitutional prohibition. I admire Senator Pimentel’s herculean effort in patiently building safeguards to limit the use of JR 10 solely “for the purpose of adopting a federal system of government.” However, I believe that these efforts are not enough, and can never be enough to bar GMA from using the federalism bogey to extend her stay.

Sadly, there is no provision in our Constitution that prevents the Con-ass, once convened, from taking up the parliamentary system and/or from extending GMA’s reign beyond 2010. Not being constitutional provisos, the safeguards placed by Senator Pimentel in JR 10 could be altered or reversed by the Con-ass.

Conclusion: to prevent Charter change from being misused to extend GMA’s reign, it is best to delay the convening of the Con-ass until after June 30, 2010. Relevantly, it is well to remember that it takes only a majority vote in each house of Congress to call a Con-ass.

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