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By Melissa Luz T. Lopez

No rush to change charter provisions

Posted on September 22, 2014

CONGRESS will not rush the proposed lifting of economic restrictions enshrined in the Constitution, despite being a priority legislative measure and a long-standing concern of investors, leaders of both chambers said last week.

“That is a very important measure. I’d rather that this be well-discussed,” House Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. told reporters.

Since the opening of the 16th Congress’ second regular session in July, the House of Representatives has held four plenary debates on Resolution of Both Houses No. 1 (RBH 1), which seeks to lift restrictions on foreign ownership of land and businesses.

“I think this is the best opportunity for us, so we have to try to make the best of it. The worst thing we can do is to stop people from asking questions,” Mr. Belmonte said.

RBH 1, introduced by Mr. Belmonte in July last year, seeks to insert the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” in Article II (Declaration of State Principles and Policies), Article XII (National Economy and Patrimony) and Article XVI (General Provisions) which set foreign ownership restrictions.

The phrase is designed to give Congress “flexibility” to later on amend those laws that impose such restrictions on specific industries or sectors.

At the House of Representatives, at least five more congressmen are lined up for interpellations, according to House Majority Leader Neptali M. Gonzales II.

The Senate has not started debates on the measure. “The Senate will wait for the House to finish and pass the bill first,” Senate President Franklin M. Drilon said in a text message, adding that RBH 1 remains a priority bill.

Mr. Belmonte said Congress can take its time to act on the proposed amendments, noting these will take effect after President Benigno S.C. Aquino III steps down in June 2016.

“We are not talking about this economic charter change as taking effect during the presidency of President Aquino. These are really for the future,” Mr. Belmonte explained.

“We need to have RBH 1 passed before 2016, but its beneficiary will be the next administrations.”

Foreign business groups and some economists have stressed the need to lift the restrictions since the Philippines fares poorly against competitors in luring foreign direct investments due to insufficient infrastructure and incentives.

“Local and foreign business organizations have been clear that this is needed to attract more... foreign direct investments... and address the need for inclusive growth. The time is now,” Henry J. Schumacher, executive vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said in a text message.

John D. Forbes, senior adviser of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc., noted the proposal still has a long way to go, saying via text: “The entire process could take years. Best to take first step in this Congress and then continue in the next.”

One hurdle to be faced by Congress in approving the charter amendment would be securing the required three-fourths vote from each chamber, Mr. Gonzales said. “We might be lucky and approve it this year, but we need to make sure that when we submit it (RBH 1) to votation, there will be enough votes and you will get the three-fourths...” he told reporters.

Debates on charter amendments have been suspended by the House to give way for action on the proposed P2.606-trillion national budget for next year. As a rule, no other measure can be tackled while the budget is being discussed in plenary session.