House retreats from bid to ease Charter’s economic restrictions

June 16, 2015 at 10:16

Posted on June 11, 2015 10:19:00 PM
By Melissa Luz T. LopezReporter

LEADERS of the House of Representatives retreated from a fight to make it easier for foreigners to own land after they refused to put to a vote a move to lift the Constitution’s economic provisions.

Despite mustering a quorum of 267 of a total of 289 members, House leaders refused to risk to open the Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) 1 on Wednesday night.

“We didn’t have the numbers. We didn’t like to take the risk,” Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. told reporters just after the chamber adjourned its second regular session.

“What I wanted to show is that it can be done. It would have been a good gesture on our part. (But) there was really no time to argue with them and I had to make that decision.”

Mr. Belmonte has now conceded that the measure would not see enactment within the current Congress, dampening hopes among foreign companies in pursuing more investments in the Philippines.

Any changes to the Constitution need to secure a three-fourths vote from the entire chamber, which is at least 217 of 289 members. Quorum woes earlier prevented the House from putting the measure up for voting.

Mr. Belmonte has stressed that the RBH 1 can provide the needed boost to attract more foreign direct investments (FDI) here, which could mean more jobs for Filipinos.

The government has reported that actual net FDI went down by 54.6% to $229 million for the first quarter of 2015. This is less than half of $506 million from the comparable period last year, and the lowest since December 2013.

Early into the plenary debates, bill authors clarified that the measure only seeks to provide Congress the “leeway” to enact future laws to accommodate full ownership of foreign investors in local industries — which the 1987 Constitution explicitly prohibited — in a bid to further boost the Philippine economy.

The lifting of the constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership is one of seven priority legislative reforms sought by foreign and local business groups for the last stretch of the Aquino administration.

An analyst attributed the sudden reluctance of House leaders to put the bill to a vote since Malacañang refused to support attempts at Charter change.

“There’s really no blessing from Malacañang. That’s the only thing that can be said,” said Edmund S. Tayao, political science professor at the University of Santo Tomas.

Mr. Tayao also added that the resistance may have come from fellow House members themselves, who may have felt that their business interests might be threatened: “the same economic elites are the political elites… Elites will not allow changes in the system because the rules of the game are favorable to them.”

Foreign business groups were disappointed with the development, as they were anticipating relaxed economic restrictions to further attract potential foreign investors to the Philippines.

“That’s very sad news,” said Peter L. Wallace of the Wallace Business Forum and the Management Association of the Philippines. “The overwhelming number of businessmen — 85% in a survey we did — supported opening up the economy to full foreign ownership so as to faster grow the economy and create more jobs. We have never understood the President’s reluctance to support this given the good and no harm it could do. His support could have ensured its success.”

This was echoed by the Australian-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ANZCham).

“Business will be disappointed. It means that it is unlikely that in terms of FDI the Philippines will be unlikely to ever compete with most of its neighbors,” ANZCham President Ian W. Porter said via text.

John D. Forbes, senior advisor of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, was of the same view: “The sharp drop in FDI and slowdown in exports this year is a big reminder that more is required to win the race of economic development and inclusive growth.”

Though acknowledging Congress’ efforts to pass other economic bills, such as the fair competition act and cabotage law amendments, such efforts are not enough to rake in more foreign investments.

“We appreciate the endeavors of the Speaker to get this important process towards opening the economy to more foreign competition going which is also supported by local business,” added Henry J. Schumacher, executive vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.

Mr. Belmonte said they could try to put the RBH 1 up for voting again — but only after making the rounds of discussions with their fellow lawmakers.

But before talks on constitutional change, leaders of Congress have a lot of convincing to do for the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a Malacañang-backed bill, and will be picking up such talks upon the resumption of sessions on July 27.

Ad hoc committee chairman and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus B. Rodriguez (2nd district) said that the House has no choice but to continue the plenary interpellations on the bill once Congress resumes, pushing back the timetable for its passage anew.

“In view of the numerous members of Congress who have listed as interpellators, we could not finish it even if we have our session tomorrow (Thursday). Since we still have 25 still on the list, we have to therefore defer deliberations until the return on July 27,” Mr. Rodriguez told reporters.


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