Side-show to a political crisis

The issue seems simple enough: Can the House of Representatives, acting alone and without the concurrence of the Senate, exercise the constituent powers of Congress? The House majority says it can. Commonsense tells us it cannot.  The constitution-making powers of Congress, like its law-making powers, are lodged in Congress as a bicameral structure.

Section I, Article XVII, of the 1987 Constitution states:  “Any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by (1) The Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members; or (2) A constitutional convention.”

The proponents of unilateral action in the Lower House are banking on the fact that the provision only speaks of a vote of three-fourths of the members, and does not specify a separate vote for each house. Fr. Joaquin Bernas, one of the framers of the 1987 Charter, says that this formulation stems from an oversight — the wording assumed a unicameral legislature.  The proposal for a unicameral Congress lost by one vote in the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

It is remarkable that the Constitution forbids both chambers, when Congress is in session, from adjourning for more than three days or from changing venue “without the consent of the other.”  Yet, on the more fundamental matter of proposing changes to the basic law of the land itself, the framers would allow either chamber to go ahead without the other’s concurrence.  If this design is intentional, it doesn’t make sense.

But, let us assume that the framers of the Charter intended it to be that way.  Still, this does not cancel the basic right of one chamber to decide, as a body, whether to participate in an assembly or vote initiated by the other for the purpose of proposing amendments or revisions of the Charter.  Before anyone even begins to cast the first vote, the two chambers must decide as separate bodies if they want to participate in a joint session.  That’s not merely parliamentary courtesy; it is the rationality of a bicameral body.

It is noteworthy that Jose de Venecia’s errand-boys studiously avoided using the term “constituent assembly” during the debate. They seem to think that by omitting the term, they are thereby freed from the straightforward requirements of joint congressional action.  It is clear they do not think the Senate’s consent is crucial.  With or without the Senate’s concurrence, they expect the Comelec to set the plebiscite for the ratification of their proposals.  Moreover, they expect the Supreme Court to uphold the validity of their acts, and they are confident that the Filipino people will ratify their proposals, including the postponement of the May 2007 elections.

One wonders where this brazenness is coming from.  Someone familiar with European history might find this vaguely reminiscent of the events leading to the 1789 Revolution in France.  Breaking the impasse in representation, the Third Estate (the Communes) pulled the rug from under the First and Second Estates (the Clergy and the

Nobles), and unilaterally declared the formation of a National Assembly, in the name of the whole nation. Once in place, the assembly converted itself into a Constituent Assembly for the purpose of drafting a new constitution.  The similarity ends there however.  The French Third Estate represented a rising middle class that was recoiling from the burden of the King’s onerous taxes.  Jose de Venecia’s House, in contrast, represents a dying privileged class that is desperately trying to extend its power by changing the form of government.

Listen to the language of this dying class: its members speak of a decadent system, as if they were its hapless victims.  They talk of new beginnings and modern solutions as if these things automatically produced new types of leaders and new citizens.  Watch how Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself gradually distances herself from this barefaced opportunism once it is massively opposed in the streets.

But, as in revolutionary France, a strong political current is pushing our country in the direction of cataclysmic change. Born of disgust with an unjust and corrupt social order, it expresses itself as a rejection of the entire political class.  Unsure of where it wants to go, it is profoundly skeptical of short-term political upheavals.  It is impatient for change, but remains fearful of the future.  The old political forces sense this gathering storm, and are trying to harness it to their own ends.  They seek to shape it, and channel it to familiar directions.  But, having been exposed, they will not succeed.

The alternative to Charter change is not the May 2007 election.  The alternative to a Con-Ass is not just a Con-Con.  Ahead of any electoral exercise, we need to clean up the entire electoral system, restore the professionalism of the Comelec staff at all levels, and plug the loopholes that have made wholesale manipulation of the results of past elections possible.  In the long term, we have to begin pushing for an alternative that seriously prioritizes the end of mass poverty, the scourge that has done the most to keep our people from electing worthy leaders. This must be accompanied by a national resolve to stop politicians, notably those with access to public funds, from exploiting the despair of the poor.

The latest antics of the trapos in the House may have ignited a collective outrage that will make people see the dangers of a crude parliamentary model.  It is hard to predict how this side-show to the political crisis will end, but I am certain it will finally be laid at the door of GMA, where it all began.


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