Statesmen in the Senate
It was good to see some of the country’s elder statesmen appear at the Senate on Wednesday to speak their mind on the proposal to amend the 1987 Constitution: It was tonic for the citizen wearied and dispirited by the brazen politicking, the blatant positioning for power and advantage, of the Duterte era.
They did not agree on every issue; they did not always speak the same language even on those issues where they were in agreement; they certainly did not give similar answers to some of the most fundamental questions.
But it was luminously clear that former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and former chief justices Hilario Davide Jr. and Renato Puno offered their views on Charter change, the federalism initiative, the crucial question of joint or separate voting, and other matters in the spirit of public service; they were motivated by the public’s highest interest. Together with former justice Adolfo Azcuna and Edmundo Garcia, like Davide members of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, the statesmen made their arguments with great dignity (punctuated by the occasional attempt at good-natured humor). They offered a sharp contrast to some of the shows of political force inflicted on the public recently, in railroaded hearings in the House of Representatives or contentious exchanges even in the Senate.
It was good to be reminded that Filipinos have an innate dignity. Puno, for instance, coolly demolished the economic justification from congressmen rationalizing their preference for a constituent assembly instead of a constitutional convention, by calling it a “cheap” argument unworthy of our people. “You should not count the cost when writing a constitution. A good constitution is the best investment a people can make.”
But Puno supported the proposed shift to a federal system of government because he said he believed the present system was too centralized, and this centralization explained why the Philippines was classified as a “failing democracy.”
To truly decentralize a unitary system’s considerable powers, he said, the devolution of powers must not come from a mere law but from the
Davide, however, sounded the alarm over federalism itself. “My position is: A shift to federalism is a lethal experiment, a fatal leap, a plunge to death, a leap to hell.” Strong words, but no name-calling, no insults, no trolling. Why was the experiment lethal? He said the nation’s history, the people’s character, the country’s culture best fit a unitary system of government. It had “proven itself so.”
Pimentel, the author of the landmark Local Government Code of 1991 which Puno believed did not go far enough in decentralizing government power but which Davide said could be beneficially amended, sought a middle ground. “If we have to revise the Constitution to give meaning to the devolution intended by the Local Government Code, we might as well move forward to the scope and power by adopting the federal system.”
On the issue of federalism itself, and the assumptions they brought to bear on the issue, the statesmen differed. But it is remarkable to realize what they did agree on. They said a constitutional convention was the best way to change the Constitution. (Pimentel again sought common ground. “The more important thing that we, as a people, should consider doing, if the Constitution is
being revised via a constituent assembly, is for us
to participate in the process proactively, actively, and decisively.”)
And all of them agreed that if the Senate and the House convene a constituent assembly, the two chambers must vote separately, not jointly. Puno: “We will destroy institutional equality if we interpret Article 17 to mean that the Senate and the House shall vote together and not separately.”
Davide: “What is essential is that both houses
vote separately” because “the power to propose amendments is given, not to a unicameral body, but to a bicameral body.” And Pimentel: “The voting of the two houses of Congress should be done separately; otherwise, the 24 senators, even if they are to act as one, would suffer fates worse than those who were swallowed by the Fukushima tsunami some time ago.”
They know whereof they speak.
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