By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco
THE CHARTER CHANGE initiative of President Rodrigo R. Duterte is now led by the Inter-agency Task Force on Federalism and Constitutional Reform or IATF as per Memorandum Circular No. 52, s. 2018.
The IATF has been hard at work putting all of the relevant agencies within the executive branch on the same page with regards to the President’s charter change agenda. This is a welcome move given their goal of establishing maximum decentralization through charter revision.
Maximum decentralization means the charter change envisioned by the IATF will make significant changes to our government structure. Obviously, this will have a huge impact on officials and employees in the central government.
The IATF has several activities in the pipeline to promote the President’s constitutional reform program. It would be in the best interest of the general public to participate in all their events. At the very least, listen to what the IATF has to offer and not just reject the idea of charter change outright.
However, Filipinos must keep in mind as well that charter change is just one option to attain maximum decentralization in the country. The other option is legislative reform.
Local autonomy is a mandatory prescription of the 1987 Constitution the nature and depth of which is described as “a kind of maximum decentralization, short of federalization.” This description of how local autonomy is to be understood in the charter means that our decentralization framework can actually approximate a federal setup.
As per Section 3 of Article X, “The Congress shall enact a local government code which shall provide for a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization with effective mechanisms of recall, initiative, and referendum, allocate among the different local government units their powers, responsibilities, and resources, and provide for the qualifications, election, appointment and removal, term, salaries, powers and functions and duties of local officials, and all other matters relating to the organization and operation of the local units.”
Very clearly, the constitutional parameters of this local government code allow for the creation of a decentralization framework that comes close to a federal structure. To do this, these three core federal features must be incorporated in the decentralization system:
1. Regional governance framework.
2. Clear power sharing between the local government and the national government as well as amongst the different levels of local governments.
3. Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) mechanisms.
The division of functions and funds must be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want a distribution scheme that leaves everybody clueless as to which government office can be held answerable for our dissatisfaction. Neither do we want overlapping designations that allow government agents to pass the blame for failure to deliver public services to our satisfaction.
Furthermore, precisely because of substantial devolution of public functions and funds, other measures to ensure the sustained and significant involvement of the people in local politics such as an anti-local dynasty mechanism and political party prescriptions are likewise imperative.
Maximum decentralization can be achieved via legislative reform through the amendment of the Local Government Code of 1991. It may also require the amendment of the Administrative Code as well as a slew of special laws. A more audacious option is to just enact a new Local Autonomy Law incorporating all of the prescriptions mentioned above.
It is worth mentioning that the Department of Interior and Local Government already has a list of proposed amendments to the Local Government Code. Moreover, the Senate Committee on Local Government has already done a study on the changes needed to update the law. And even the proposed new omnibus local autonomy law does not have to be created from scratch as the Bangsamoro Organic Law can be a good starting point.
So, why should pursuing maximum decentralization via legislative reform be given serious consideration? Here are some possible reasons:
First, because it simply involves the regular work of Congress. Therefore, there is no urgency to resolve fundamental concerns plaguing charter change such as the question on the voting arrangement of the Senate and the House of Representatives if they convene as a Constituent Assembly or the huge cost to taxpayers if a Constitutional Convention is chosen as the mode to revise the charter.
Second, Congress can work on this matter as part of the regular legislative cycle. There is no need to recalibrate their legislative calendar to accommodate the extraordinary disruption to their regular work that would be caused by a charter change effort.
Third, the enactment of these laws does not require a plebiscite. Hence, there is no need for a special budget allocation which would likely cost taxpayers the same amount, or close to it, to conduct a regular election.
Fourth, the “unintended consequences” that may manifest during the implementation stage can be swiftly addressed by Congress.
In sum, all Filipinos desire a drastic improvement of the way we govern ourselves. One path to achieve this is via charter change. The IATF as the lead advocate of this option will be guided by this caveat from the President in Memorandum Circular No. 52:
“The conduct of a public information drive and advocacy campaign at the grassroots level is necessary to raise public awareness on Federalism and constitutional reform as well as to ensure widest public participation in the ongoing initiatives to amend or revise the fundamental law of the land.”
Filipinos should participate in the IATF’s “public information drive and advocacy campaign at the grassroots level” to ensure that the administration knows the real sentiment of the people regarding this massive undertaking they want Filipinos to support.
But Filipinos must also lend an ear to the other path to maximum decentralization, comprehensive legislative reform. We must also participate in activities offered by the champions of this option. Make sure as well that lawmakers know the ramifications of their inaction.
This choice between charter change and legislative reform is something we can reflect on while the 18th Congress focuses on passing the 2020 budget and the economic reform package of the Duterte administration.
Michael Henry LI. Yusingco, LL.M, is a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.