House panel votes: Amend charter through Constituent Assembly

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The House committee on constitutional amendments voted in favor of the 17th Congress turning itself into a Constituent Assembly to amend the 1987 Constitution, in a move toward the shift to a federal system of government.

During the committee hearing on Wednesday, October 19, Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia moved for the panel to approve her concurrent resolution calling both the House of Representatives and the Senate to convene as a Constituent Assembly.

LOOK: The concurrent reso calling Congress to turn itself into a Con-Ass for charter change. This passed the committee level @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/S2buFrYBhr — Mara Cepeda (@maracepeda) October 19, 2016

The concurrent resolution got the nod of 32 lawmakers through nominal voting, while 7 congressmen were against it. Only 3 members of the House panel abstained from voting.

Through a Constituent Assembly, the incumbent Congress turns itself into a body that amends the Constitution “upon a vote of 3/4 of all its members.” Amendments passed by a Constituent Assembly are finalized once a majority of registered voters support them through a plebiscite.

Southern Leyte Representative Roger Mercado, committee chairperson, initially moved to conduct a viva voce vote to decide on Garcia’s resolution.

This was opposed by Senior Deputy Minority Leader Lito Atienza, saying: “It’s not a question of ayes and nays.”

Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, who is set to replace Mercado as committee chairperson, then instructed a second round of nominal voting, with lawmakers standing up to declare their vote.

The House constitutional amendments is now set to create a committee report on the resolution to have it approved at the plenary, wherein the other members of the House of Representatives may decide to accept or reject the resolution.

A Constituent Assembly is the preferred charter change mode of President Rodrigo Duterte, who had long been championing a shift to federalism. (READ: Will federalism address PH woes? The pros and cons of federalism)

According to the President, a Constituent Assembly would be cheaper and faster compared to a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) or a People’s Initiative, the other two ways the 1987 Constitution may be amended.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier said the Duterte administration wants to ratify the new Constitution by the 2019 midterm elections.

The period between 2019 to 2022, the end of Duterte’s term as president, will then serve as the transition period to a federal system.

Under federalism, the country will be divided into autonomous regions or states, with the national government left to take care of matters with nationwide bearing like foreign policy and national security.

Some lawmakers and analysts, however, have opposed a Constituent Assembly, saying Congress members cannot be trusted to change the Constitution without putting their self-interests ahead of the nation’s.

As a response to criticisms, plans are now underway for the creation of a Constitutional Commission, a group of experts and constitutionalists who will be tasked to help the Constituent Assembly amend the charter.

Dissenters prefer Con-Con

Some of those who voted against Constituent Assembly briefly explained their vote.  

Batanes Representative Henedina Abad and Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao both prefer a Con-Con, a body of representatives that is distinct from the incumbent Congress.

The delegates are usually elected through popular vote, but they may be appointed as well. Congress decides on the details of delegates’ qualifications, election or appointment, rules of procedure, and operational budget.

Bag-ao said a Con-Con is the "most democratic and most representative process" to amend the charter.

"It would provide an opportunity for our citizens to directly select their representatives to this very critical task. It would allow a more balanced representation across all sectors, across all geographic demarcations," she said.

Abad shared her sentiments.

"Sa lawak at lalim at sa selan ng mga usaping ito, kailangan po hindi lamang tayo ang nag-uusap. Kung hindi, kasama ang mga batayang sektor at iba pang mga mahahalagang sektor ng ating lipunan," she said. 

(Because of the wide scope, depth, and sensitivity of this discussion, we are not supposed to be the only ones talking about it. The concerned sectors of society should also be included.)

Buhay Representative Atienza thinks that lawmakers convening as a Constituent Assembly would also be a "breach" of the people's trust bestowed upon them. 

"We were all elected as congressmen of the districts. Not one of us in this committee nor in the plenary have promised that, if elected, I would revise the Constitution. Therefore, this is a serious breach of our contract with the electorate to send us here today to deliberate on laws. [We were not sent here] to tinker with the Constitution," he said. Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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