The omission of constitutional change in the State of the Nation Address put President Aquino at loggerheads with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

Prior to the delivery of the Sona last Monday, the leaders of both houses of Congress had lobbied hard with the President to back their proposal to amend the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution restricting ownership by foreign investors of land, utilities, transport, media and communications to 40 percent, to attract a larger flow of investments. While the President was from the start firmly opposed to the proposal, the congressional leaders received a shock when their Charter change project did not merit even a single word of recognition in the Sona—the most important document containing an administration’s record of its achievements in the past year and its agenda of plans and policies for the next.

In the tradition of our constitutional system, the Sona is the exclusive prerogative of the President to set the political, economic and social agenda of the nation; it is his bully pulpit from which to launch social and political change. It is hard to explain how it occurred to the two congressional leaders to proclaim their own agenda in competition with that of the Sona, with the result that, in a single day, three Sonas were pronounced—one from the President, one from the Senate president and one from the Speaker. This underlines the chaotic character of policymaking in our political system.

Their agendas are not complementary and contain a number of overlaps of legislative proposals and priorities. For example, it was during his policy statement ahead of the Sona when Senate President Enrile pressed his call for Charter change, after the President had brushed it aside. It is not that—although the President didn’t agree with the argument that it’s now the right time to tinker with the Constitution—the executive is not willing to hear the arguments for Charter change from Enrile and Belmonte.  He is willing to listen. It’s just that he won’t come on board Enrile and Belmonte’s bandwagon and give their movement a badly needed push. In short, he is not willing to give Charter change legitimacy. Nor is he going to throw the powers of his office to block it.

Despite the Sona’s silence on constitutional change, Belmonte insisted that Congress would continue to push the project and that he and Enrile planned to meet the President soon to discuss the  proposed amendments. “The President may not be in favor of Charter change so he” opted to exclude it from his speech, but “whatever it is, the Senate president and I will see him next week.” He said, “I think we need (Mr. Aquino’s) endorsement … but if he doesn’t push it, at least he doesn’t talk against it.”

The divergence of the President and congressional leaders on Charter change highlights the changing  balance of power between the executive and legislative branches as the government shifts its focus to economic issues after its success in removing Chief Justice Renato Corona in a bruising impeachment trial that damaged the independence of the Supreme Court and that enhanced the power of Congress and the presidency.

The impeachment saw the combined powers of  the presidency in spearheading the prosecution of Corona. It was the House under Belmonte’s leadership that fast-tracked the impeachment complaint and marshaled the votes to send it to the Senate for trial.

Now roles have changed. Malacañang and Belmonte don’t see eye to eye. The Palace claims that Congress is independent and can move as they wish. “It would depend on the President’s allies in Congress whether or not to support the Charter change initiative, or follow the President’s wishes,” said a Palace spokesperson. Question is, who or what is the persuader?

Belmonte is hard put to look for votes to sign a resolution calling for constitutional amendments. In his case, the President’s preference is likely to prevail, even without having to lift a finger. Belmonte and Enrile, crucial allies of the President in the impeachment case, are demonstrating some form of independence from the President. He does not care if they agree or disagree over Charter change, or resent being ignored in the Sona. We do need a legislature that is not a rubber stamp of the executive but their alliance made the executive so overly powerful relative to the legislature and the judiciary that it would require more than opposing the President on Charter change to realign the imbalance of power among them. They are to blame.

Unfortunately for the supporters of Charter change, those opposing it have found support from commentaries of independent academics  and well-informed intellectuals. Their arguments are a windfall for Mr. Aquino. The pro-Charter change lobby had better look for more persuasive arguments. If they can’t, the excessively powerful  President will feel invincible and treat his erstwhile cohorts in Congress like dirt.

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Tags: balance of power , charter change , congress , featured column

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