Saturday, May 25, 2019

Editorial: Whipping the Constitution

HOUSE Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez acts like a congressional whip. He has so far marshalled enough support for some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s priorities to be pursued in Congress. But it is in enforcing a kind of party discipline that he is particularly effective.

Nearly a year ago, Speaker Alvarez said that congressional leaders who voted against restoring the death penalty would lose their positions. They did. Among those who paid the price was Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who lost the deputy speakership after she voted against bringing back capital punishment, first abolished during her presidency. Arroyo has since joined PDD-Laban, which President Duterte chairs and which Alvarez serves as secretary-general.

The Speaker addressed his latest warning to governors who “do not want to go along” with the administration’s program to amend the 1987 Constitution. He said there would be no allocation for them in the 2018 budget. Later, he said he was only joking. But his track record so far shows he’s capable of enforcing his threats. Just ask the 24 “undesirable” lawmakers who were shut out of the infrastructure program in this year’s budget.

It takes clout with the President and a degree of ruthlessness to do the job that Alvarez does. Yet the same qualities that make him valuable to the President and his party are what make him a poor choice to lead the effort to amend the Constitution. In case you missed it, Alvarez has told the Inquirer that the House of Representatives was already working on proposed amendments to the Constitution and that he sees no need for the Senate’s involvement. His view is that Article 17, Section 1—“The Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members”—does not specifically require the Senate’s participation in proposing constitutional amendments.

Calls to revisit the Constitution, approved nearly 31 years ago, are valid. But the process of reviewing and amending it cannot be left alone to sitting politicians, especially those who’ve shown an inability to listen to contrary positions. The mechanism of a constitutional convention also exists: it will take more time and other resources, and it will certainly involve more tiring debates, but it is also the process that will give citizens a fuller voice.

The person to lead the Charter change program should, ideally, be independent of the powers that be, someone who has not only mastery of the law, but also a demonstrated reverence for it. The good Speaker of the House is not that person.
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