The House of Representatives has completed its work on its schedule of bills for this year, Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Friday, after enacting the many proposed measures listed by President Duterte in his State of the Nation Address (SONA), except for one – approval of a new Constitution embodying a federal form of government by Congress acting as a Constituent Assembly.
In the two weeks left before Congress goes on a Christmas break, she said, the House will devote the time to initial discussions on the proposed new Constitution. However, she stressed, she does not expect the process to be completed in these two short weeks. The work will have to be carried on next year, to be completed by the next – the 18th Congress – whose members will be chosen in the midterm election on May 13, 2019.
The speaker stressed the impossibility of this current 17th Congress finishing the process of approving a new Constitution. The Senate has already announced it needs to devote the remaining days of 2018 scrutinizing the 2019 National Appropriation Bill which the senators suspect contains many hidden “pork barrel” provisions.
The proposed Constituent Assembly poses another problem for the Senate. Early this year, the House, then led by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, called for its approval by a Constituent Assembly with senators and congressmen voting as one body. The Senate is determined to defend its right to vote separately, or its 24 members would be submerged into irrelevance by the House’s 292 members
More than the issue of procedure is the basic idea of dividing the country into autonomous regions, each with its own governor and set of officials, in addition to the present layers of national, provincial, municipal, and barangay bureaucracy.
Federalism was originally cited as a good way to give the Bangsamoro people greater autonomy. They now have it with the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The Cordillera people have their own pending autonomy bill. There is no desire on the part of any of the other regions to separate from one another in a federal system.
Then there is the problem of funding the proposed new layer of bureaucacy – in terms of salaries and budgets for regional offices and agencies. One plan would just transfer the present funding from local governments to the new regional governments, raising howls of protest from the present local officials.
The coming months will give all concerned an opportunity to review these and other issues. The various issues related to federalism may be raised in the coming election of local officials, the entire membership of the House, and half of the Senate.
Meanwhile, the House will continue its plan to start discussing various issues related to Charter change. It should include in its discussions the idea of whether there is need for Charter change at all at this time.