Decentralized governance is the goal
There is no dispute that the Philippines’ fundamental problem is the concentration of power and wealth in Imperial Manila. And both sides of the federalism debate agree that the only way to break this up is to establish a robust decentralized governance framework.
Empowering local government, both in fiscal and administrative terms, is an undeniable requisite to spur regional development. But designing the specifics of this decentralized government structure is where this unanimity ends.
There is merit to the proposal of simply improving the existing decentralization regime as opposed to the federalism movement’s push for a complete overhaul of the entire system of government. The former does not require the revision of the 1987 Constitution, whereas undertaking Charter change (Cha-cha) is necessary for the latter.
The fact is the current administrative organization of local government means that there are working institutional offices ready to carry out new mandates. Doing this will be relatively easier and perfunctory because they enjoy familiarity among communities within their respective territorial jurisdictions.
More importantly, the Department of the Interior and Local Government itself has a ready list of amendments to the Local Government Code (LGC) aimed at enhancing fiscal distribution and administrative devolution. Hence, to simply institute these improvements would arguably be more practical and logical than a total redesign of the entire bureaucratic organization.
Pertinently, implementing substantive reforms relating to local autonomy is sanctioned under Article X of the Constitution, either through legislation under Sections 3 and 13, or by executive fiat under Section 14.
But there is credence as well with pushing for comprehensive improvements to be cemented in a new constitution. Moreover, some necessary reforms require constitutional amendment—for instance, the regulation of local dynasties.
But the critical difference here is that the enhanced decentralized framework must be self-evident in the Charter itself. Meaning, the realization of meaningful local autonomy must occur when the new constitution is ratified in the plebiscite.
If an enabling law is needed to operationalize the autonomy of local government, then this is not really an improvement to the current structure. A case in point is the draft charter proposed by PDP-Laban.
In the draft, the devolution of fiscal and political powers to the regional level government will only happen if the envisioned Federal Assembly enacts a Regional Local Government Code. Obviously, this merely copies the decentralization procedure found in the Constitution.
Alarmingly, pending the passage of such a law, the country will be ruled by an even bigger and more complex Imperial Manila because executive authority will be shared by a still powerful president as head of state and an equally influential prime minister as head of government.
In sum, there are two ways to break Imperial Manila’s monopoly on policy decisions impacting the entire Philippines. One is through Cha-cha; the other is through purposeful legislation only.
As for the federalism project, the House of Representatives plans to formally commence Cha-cha this month. But the Senate has not made any such commitment. Neither is the Duterte administration offering a clear timetable. So there is no certainty yet for this option.
On the other hand, the respective committees on local governments of the Senate and the House are focused on passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law. This is fortuitous because their hearings in the coming weeks can produce insights that can form the basis of legislation to improve the current decentralization structure.
Notably, the Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara, is also conducting a comprehensive review of the LGC. Therefore, there is an ongoing legislative reform process to improve the existing decentralization arrangement.
The federalism debate captivated many Filipinos last year. As the discourse intensifies in 2018, we must not forget that the primary objective is to decentralize governance.
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Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.
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