The House of Representatives descended to a new low when two lawmakers nearly came to blows last Wednesday.
The cause of the altercation between Representatives Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte and Prospero Pichay of Surigao del Sur? How best to speed up Congress’ move to convene a constitutional assembly in line with President Duterte’s express wish to change the system of government from presidential to federal.
That might sound like a creditable context for Barbers and Pichay’s confrontation, but then the devil is in the sordid details. The scene was the first hearing of the committee on constitutional amendments, when the lawmakers were deliberating whether to go for a constitutional commission (Con-com) or a constituent assembly (Con-ass). Pichay made the sensible point, in answer to Cebu Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia’s push for Con-ass, that before the House agreed on anything, it should first invite the Senate to the deliberations.
Article XVII, Sec. 1 of the Constitution says “any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by the Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members.” Pichay pointed out that Congress means both the House and the Senate, hence the need to involve the latter. Inexplicably, Barbers reacted with unusual hostility to the proposal. “Let us not be entertaining senseless motions, those are stupid motions,” he said. Then, for good measure, he uttered something totally flabbergasting: “Let’s not pretend to be constitutionalists here.”
Wait. As a lawmaker, Barbers is expected to know the Constitution, at the very least. His task and position flow from that very document. He doesn’t need to be a “constitutionalist” to know that Pichay had a valid point. So why the bellicose reaction, in which he not only dismissed Pichay with unparliamentary language, but also went up to his colleague and, according to reports, told him off with expletives and a pointed finger, which the other then shoved aside?
Why the unseemly haste to amend the Constitution that Barbers would refuse to entertain even the idea of a courtesy invitation to senators to take part in a momentous governmental shift, which could even end in the abolition of the Senate? It has only been 100 days of the Duterte administration; the overwhelming focus so far has been on the war on drugs, while other major concerns—the unabated poverty, the lack of jobs, the daily hellish traffic—wait for the same attention and resources that Mr. Duterte has directed at his signature anticrime platform.
But here are Barbers and Pichay, both of whom, it should be said, not only represent the Surigao provinces but are also just two of the legislators in the President’s Congress supermajority who have agreed to go for Con-ass. Never mind that it represents the first major election promise broken by Mr. Duterte, who first said Charter change would be via a Con-com precisely to ensure that lawmakers would not use the exercise to advance their own interests.
That Charter amendments will be insulated from partisan and personal conflicts of interest appears to be a dim prospect now, with the administration having given the green light for Con-ass, and the lawmakers in turn seemingly in a rush to get the train running. The fight between Pichay and Barbers, after all, is not even about which of the two proposed modes is the ideal way to amend the Constitution, or, more fundamentally, whether there’s an urgent need to touch it at all. It was merely about the faster way to get there—whether to still observe some basic governmental courtesies, or to drop all pretense and steamroll the project.
And they nearly got physical over that? Curious.
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