Senators divided on Con-Con, Constituent Assembly

MANILA, Philippines – While most lawmakers in the House of Representatives back charter change through Constituent Assembly, senators are torn between this mode and another, the elected Constitutional Convention (Con-Con).

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, party mate of President Rodrigo Duterte, said on Monday, August 1, he is open to either of the two modes as they are both constitutional.

“I am open to Con-Con, Con-Ass because they are both recognized by the Constitution. So there is nothing wrong with the two. Actually what we call that is preferred mode – what is according to your taste. So there is no wrong answer,” Pimentel said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Pimentel, however, said he is expecting a heated debate on the issue of the proper way of amending the charter.

Several lawmakers and groups have opposed Duterte's preference for charter change via a Constituent Assembly to pave the way for federalism. (READ: The problem with Con-Ass? Distrust in Congress)

Under a Constituent Assembly, sitting members of Congress turn themselves into a body that would amend the Constitution. 

Duterte originally preferred a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con), wherein a body separate from Congress is either elected or appointed to change the charter.

But the President changed his mind because of the Con-Con's higher costs at P6 billion to P7 billion compared to a Constituent Assembly's possible budget of P2 billion. (READ: Duterte defends Con-Ass: Filipinos trust their senators)

The opposition of some senators comes as no surprise as the Senate has a different dynamics than the lower house, with a seemingly weaker alliance with Duterte. (READ: Duterte and the Senate: Of allies, critics, and in-betweens)

Constituent Assemly is better, faster

Senator Richard Gordon, a delegate of the 1971 Constitutional Convention, said he prefers to convene Congress into a Constituent Assembly since it is the least expensive and it is the most expeditious mode.

While senators are divided on the issue on how to amend the Constitution, they are all in unison in pushing that, if a Constituent Assembly mode is adopted, the two Houses should vote separately, so the voice of the 24 senators would not get diluted by the 200-plus in the House of Representatives.

"Of course the Senate won't allow that they would just do it. You approve, we have conflicting provisions, then we hold a bicameral conference," Gordon said.

While critics argued that only self-interests of lawmakers would flourish in a Constituent Assembly, Gordon said such fears would more likely happen in a Con-Con.

“Expensive, all the more they could hold the system. It would be easier to influence Con-Con. We would put our allies there,” Gordon said.

How can you have constitutional change, expecting change with the same old people? It applies whether its Con-Con or Constituent Assembly,” he added.

Gordon said educating the public on the possible revisions and amendments is the best way to go.

“The people would vote but if the people would vote for the same people? It's the same thing. That's why it is important to me that the people understand what will be amended, that’s the more important thing to me,” he said.

Still Con-Con

For other senators – Senate Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, senators Panfilo Lacson and Risa Hontiveros – Con-Con is the best way to amend the Constitution.

But Sotto said he is still amenable to a Constituent Assembly only if the voting of the chambers would be done separately. For him, such method would provide more checks and balances.

"Ideally, it should be Con-Con, but Con-Ass is cheaper but not as accepted by the public. Now, maybe if there will be a ruling that both houses of Congress would be voting separately, it might stand a chance because the Senate will never be outvoted," Sotto said.

The Senate Majority Leader also expressed reservations on charter change, saying the 1987 Constitution is not outdated as some say it is.

“If I may quote, if it ain't broke why fix it? It's an American saying. I have that kind of thinking, that's why I'm not 100% in favor of charter change. But if the President and majority of our countryman think there must be charter change, I will not be against it,” he said.

“Because, have you ever heard the United States Constitution is outdated? Isn't the Philippine Constitution almost a copy of the US Constitution?” Sotto added.

Hontiveros said Con-Con is more participatory than a Constituent Assembly and outweighs the costs associated with it.

“While the latter might indeed be more cost-efficient, we believe there is a greater need to protect the sacrosanct process of amending the charter from self-interest,” Hontiveros said.

Lacson, for his part, said he simply does not trust Congress in amending and revising the Constitution.

"I have misgivings on Con-Ass, simply because I don't trust us. Con-Con is better even if it is a bit expensive. We were discussing earlier, Con-Ass might have more intangibles and in the long run might end up being more expensive," Lacson said.

"Like I said, later on there might be concessions that will be asked of us, aside from the reality that we all know that selfish political interest of lawmakers might come in, our constitutional amendment is doomed," he added.

While the Senate has no official stand on the matter yet, Senate President Pro-Tempore Franklin Drilon earlier filed a bill calling for a Constitutional Convention to amend the Constitution. – Rappler.com 

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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