What Alvarez wants, Alvarez gets
As expected, the two leaders of Congress, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, agreed to change our Charter (Cha-cha) via a constituent assembly (Con-ass).
Significant differences. Significantly, however, they disagreed on the timeline and the voting procedure. On the timeline, Pimentel wants the Con-ass to begin now to last till the end of 2018 and to hold the plebiscite together with the midterm polls in May 2019.
This proposal implies that the midterm elections will proceed. It will give the Con-ass over a year to finish its work. The 1986 Constitutional Commission, working full time daily, took about a year to complete the 1987 Charter, including its ratification.
In contrast, Alvarez wants the Con-ass to fast-track its work and to have the draft constitution voted upon in a plebiscite to coincide with the barangay elections in May this year.
On the voting procedure, the Senate President believes each chamber should vote separately, as they do in passing ordinary legislation. In this manner, the senators would have tremendous leverage because the three-fourths vote—or, to be exact, 18 of them—must conform to the new charter. The Speaker is for a joint vote.
SC’s key role. As I wrote in this space last Sunday, the key to speedy Cha-cha is to ask the Supreme Court for a swift decision on whether the two chambers shall vote separately or jointly.
Briefly, shorn of legalese, those who agree with Alvarez will rely on verba legis, or on the plain meaning of the constitutional text, which simply says, “Congress, upon a vote of three fourths of all its Members,” may propose revisions to the Constitution. In its other provisions, the Charter uses the word “separate” whenever separate voting is required. But in constitutional revisions, it is silent.
On the other hand, those who disagree with Alvarez (among them retired chief justice Reynato S. Puno and retired justice Vicente V. Mendoza, who both testified in the House hearings on the subject) cite the proceedings of the 1986 Constitutional Commission which show the framers’ clear intent for separate voting.
How will the Supreme Court decide? The intelligent, law-school answer requires research on the legal philosophy of each of the 15 members of the tribunal. It is necessary to read the mind of each justice and discover how he/she interpreted in prior decisions and opinions—via verba legis or via legislative intent? In any event, I believe the answer deserves a future column.
Four hurdles. Meanwhile, let me summarize four hurdles to speedy Cha-cha. The first is the “thinking” Senate, which, according to Sen. Panfilo Lacson, cannot be dictated upon, not even by the President. The senators will not agree to decide in only three months. Neither will they assent to joint voting, especially if the Con-ass would abolish the Senate.
The second is the Supreme Court, which may not go along with a joint vote. But if it does, the first obstacle would be simultaneously hurdled.
The third is the lack of popular support for federalism. The latest opinion surveys show either ignorance of or objections to it. Verily, the proposal is still vague and complicated. Of the several models floated, none has gained traction. If at all, they merely added to the confusion.
For this and other reasons, the alternative for a speedy Con-ass may be to install only the parliamentary system and to retain all other provisions of the 1987 Charter. Thereafter, the proponents, if warranted, can revive the move for federalism. The parliamentary system has the advantage of having been lengthily discussed in two prior Cha-cha attempts.
The fourth: The 1987 Charter requires the plebiscite to “be held not earlier than sixty days nor later than ninety days after the approval of such amendment or revision.” Can the speedy Con-ass comply with this tough timeline?
At bottom, whose Con-ass train will prevail—Pimentel’s one-year sleeper voting separately, or Alvarez’s three-month express voting jointly? I am not a politician to make a credible guess, but my politician-friends say that, based on his track record as Speaker, what Alvarez wants, Alvarez gets.
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