By Marvin Tort
Congress should reconsider its plan to deliberate within the year any proposed changes to the 1987 Constitution, and then to later convene as a constituent assembly to amend the charter. The House leadership’s plan is to ratify any proposed charter changes in a plebiscite that can be held also during the May 2022 national and local elections.
Constitutional review can be done, but only after the May 2022 elections, which are just 15 months away. Any changes to the charter can wait until a new Congress is in place. We have already waited 34 years to make these changes, what is another 18 months? The 1935 Constitution was not amended until 1973, or about 38 years after.
Timing will always be suspect if constitutional review is done on or before a presidential election year. When the 1971 Constitutional Convention reviewed the 1935 Constitution, convention delegates were elected in November 1970. The convention was convened in June 1971. The presidential election was originally set for November 1972, about 18 months away, but it was never held as Martial Law was declared just two months before.
One can appreciate Congress’ sense of urgency. The intention, according to the House leadership, is to amend the “restrictive economic provisions” of the 1987 Constitution to help the economy recover from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The charter will be amended to allow Congress to pass bills that can “free up the economy to foreign investors.”
The plan appeals even to government economic managers, with Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III saying he is for “opening up the economy in all areas possible, with the exception of land ownership [because] the issue of land ownership is so emotional.” He also says liberalization “challenges local [producers], and they respond positively if there is good support.”
As for Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua, he wants Congress to instead prioritize already pending bills, such as proposed amendments to the Public Service Act (PSA), Retail Trade Liberalization Act (RTL), and Foreign Investment Act (FIA). “These are urgently needed to help attract more investments and create jobs,” he was quoted in a report.
This was seconded by Budget Assistant Secretary Rolando U. Toledo, who said “these bills will help promote a more sustainable and resilient external sector, whilst increasing the inflow of foreign investments and generating more jobs for the Filipino people.” The three bills were already approved by the House, but counterpart measures are pending at the Senate.
I support Secretary Chua’s call for prioritizing suitable alternatives to constitutional amendments. Approving these three economic bills can go a long way in reassuring investors and the market that the Philippines is ready to do business despite the pandemic. The challenge is convincing senators to prioritize these three items in their legislative calendar for 2021.
A new Congress in June 2022 can initiate a review of the economy’s performance and decide whether or not to still pursue amendments to the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. By then, a mass vaccination plan for COVID-19 may also already be in place. It will also be more evident whether the three “laws” were actually beneficial or if they need further support.
Also, by mid-2022, there will be greater clarity as to where the Philippine economy is going and what businesses need support to either survive or to grow. We may also see greater stability in the world economy. We may also have a better idea which industries and technologies are attracting more capital and greater interest from investors.
My reluctance to support constitutional changes now stem from the lack of clarity whether as a constituent assembly, the House and the Senate will vote separately or together as one, on any proposed changes to the Constitution. My position is that given a bicameral legislature, then the two chambers should vote separately. I am uncertain, however, if this is how legislators see it.
Also, I am inclined to agree with the Makati Business Club (MBC) that charter change now may be “highly divisive” and “will only raise fears that other constitutional changes, some of which may be highly controversial, may be introduced and passed.” Instead, the MBC said, a new Congress in 2022 can be asked to “commit to initiate steps for the adoption of such [economic] provisions within the first 12 months of their term.”
Economic and political conditions are so fluid now that nobody really knows what’s going to happen in 2021 and 2022. Of course, this is not reason enough to just sit on our hands in the meantime. But constitutional changes are major undertakings that are not to be taken lightly. More patience and further study may be the more prudent thing to do for now.
We cannot afford any further instability. Things have been bad, and they can still get worse given the rising trend in COVID-19 cases. Thousands have died, and thousands more get infected every day. We are still far from securing vaccines for the majority. And the virus has been mutating, which can still render present vaccines useless by the time they become available to us.
Businesses and consumers have learned to adapt to the situation. A lot of changes have happened, and more changes will happen still. In this context, perhaps changes to the Public Service Act, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, and the Foreign Investment Act may be enough for 2021 or until mid-2022. Constitutional amendments can come after the May 2022 Fiesta.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council