[OPINION] Working on the railroad

January 23, 2018 at 14:00

Working on the railroad

The senators are correct: if bicameral approval is needed for every piece of legislation, from the annual national budget to renaming a street, how much more a revision of the Constitution?

For either chamber of Congress, there is no dancing Cha-cha solo. Insisting on it will make Charter change an exercise in futility, a broken monument to the hubris of the super majority in the House of Representatives. Cha-cha will then become a waste of time, effort and tax money – not that a lot of effort is being expended by the Palace rubberstamp House. The super majority seems bent chiefly on reporting to Bossing Digong that its part of the job is done, ASAP, and the Cha-cha train is hurtling merrily along the railroad tracks, bearing the banner of federalism.

If President Duterte seriously wants to rewrite the Constitution for his cure-all shift to federalism, he must tell his House allies to take lessons on winning friends and influencing people, to make sure the Cha-cha train reaches its intended destination.

At the rate things are going, the Cha-cha railroading by the House is uniting senators in an unprecedented way (with the exception of Manny Pacquiao, but no surprise there). It is also creating a rift in the ruling PDP-Laban, whose original members should be wondering what has happened to the party’s supposed democratic ideals.

The statement over the weekend by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, that it is Senate President Koko Pimentel’s duty to attend the House constituent assembly or con-ass – against the sentiments of most of the senators – sounded not like an invitation to the head of a co-equal chamber but a threat.

Now if Pimentel shows up at the House con-ass, even out of parliamentary courtesy, he will look like a wimp capitulating to a higher power. How will he explain it to his colleagues, who want to expel any senator who participates in the House solo con-ass? Pimentel has been given no face-saving wiggle room to show his independence.

Since Alvarez and Pimentel belong to the same party supporting President Duterte, the two congressional leaders should be able to finesse critical matters outside the public eye. From the exchange of comments in recent days, however, it looks like bad blood is now running deep within the ruling party. This spells trouble for the President’s reform agenda, no matter how popular he is.

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People are waiting for courageous souls in the House who will stand up to Alvarez’s threat to withhold funding for congressional districts and local government units that refuse to back federalism. Pimentel has been trying to avoid a head-on collision with Alvarez, but senators stressed that funding approvals are also bicameral acts.

Cha-cha is supposed to lift economic restrictions that weaken national competitiveness. Some hope that it will rationalize the powers of a corrupted, inefficient judiciary. Cha-cha is envisioned to bring the nation to the globalized 21st century.

Yet here we are, with the Cha-cha debate centered on control over money. One local government executive said it last week, bemoaning that they needed greater control over public funds and a bigger share of the budget pie. The focus is reinforcing perceptions that the federalism initiative is dragging the country toward modern feudalism, with political dynasties and warlords controlling more public funds and doing whatever they please in their fiefdoms.

House leaders seem supremely confident that even if the chamber goes solo on con-ass to rewrite the basic law of the land, and the result is challenged before the Supreme Court, malleable SC justices can always be presented with an offer they can’t refuse, and the House will get its way.

But the people will have the final say in any change of government. And people cannot be so easily bamboozled into swallowing a shift to federalism while those behind it are discussing term extensions and the possibility of staying in their posts forever. It smacks of greed, which doesn’t play well in this country.

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Business groups, asked to comment on the latest Cha-cha initiative, have issued statements emphasizing the need for economic amendments to attract investments and create jobs. Con-ass will do for such changes, the business groups have stressed, but they believe a Charter revision for federalism needs a constitutional convention.

Perhaps their statements will get through the lawmakers who are lustily cheering for federalism these days with a singular consideration: what’s in it for me?

This is only human. At the Senate, the aversion to the House con-ass is fueled mainly by self-preservation. But there’s such a thing as enlightened self-interest. Do what’s right so the nation benefits, and the improvements will mean a better life for individuals. As officials directly elected by the people, lawmakers owe it to us to put public interest first and foremost.

Federalism is an alien concept to most Filipinos. Even many among the highly educated aren’t sure exactly what creature is being forced down the throat of the nation, no questions asked. It would be a miracle if legitimate debates on federalism can be finished in three months. It took over a decade for Congress to approve the reproductive health law, and it languished for a few more years in the Supreme Court.

Already, certain senators are saying that budget reforms and ordinary legislation can deal with the problems that federalism aims to address.

The way federalism is being pushed by the masters of the universe at the House, the Cha-cha train appears to be hurtling toward a cliff.

Source: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2018/01/22/1780122/working-railroad

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