The Long View: To the brink and beyond


To the brink and beyond

 / 04:35 AM January 24, 2024

After the pandemic, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri abandoned showing his age and reverted to dyeing in aid of a youthful look in time to be reelected. Certainly, it seems to have surprised many that, after it seemed the Senate had been outmaneuvered by the House of Representatives, the upper house managed to call the bluff of the lower house.

What happened was this. It began with a rush job. The constitutional commissioners appointed to draft the 1987 Constitution seemed inclined to revisit the 1973 Charter and put in place a unicameral legislature. But in the end, by a single vote, a bicameral Congress was decided. The thing was, as the late Fr. Joaquin Bernas wrote, the commission forgot to revisit the provisions already drafted with a unicameral legislature in mind. Result? The 1987 Charter as approved, has a bicameral system with unicameral provisions.

It remains problematic how Congress can proclaim itself a constituent assembly when it wants to devote itself to proposing an amendment for ratification by the people. To cut a long debate short, the provision is written as if there was only one chamber; it does not, as it ought to, specify that each chamber should convene, vote separately, and only if both chambers reach a threshold, then propose an amendment to the people for approval in a plebiscite. This means representatives have long argued that each chamber may follow its own rules in deciding to tackle amendments but once they sit together, the two chambers essentially merge into a superchamber. Senators, of course, disagree.

In the past, this disagreement meant talks would often collapse because it meant bringing in the Supreme Court which was widely expected to rule based on common sense: a bicameral legislature must always act in a bicameral manner. But over time, the Senate seems to feel it’s on increasingly shaky ground because, as the saying goes, it turns out common sense is less common than you think. I’ve heard one senior ex-senator opine about how humiliating it would be to run to the Supreme Court only for it to slit the throat of the Senate.

Which brings us to the here and now. I’ve repeatedly pointed out a basic fact: the first majority mandate in over a generation and under this Constitution, especially when widely understood as a repudiation of the people power era itself, certainly arms the current administration with the political legitimacy to propose a new political system or fundamentally amend the existing one. Rodrigo Duterte had a mandate smaller than everyone except Fidel Ramos but such was the impact of his candidacy that it seemed that a new constitution was inevitable—except that his own economic team vetoed it. Now the Speaker of the House wants it and explored every method to go about it.

Including the one no one wanted to try, because it’s the messiest and possibly, the most expensive, time-consuming, and unpredictable, even though it’s the one method the public has always said it finds most acceptable: a constitutional convention. This one petered out, fast, for now. Then the formerly extinct method of a people’s initiative, where the public itself proposed amendments, was revived, in this post-pandemic “ayuda” era, where record-keeping and grassroots management and communication have been significantly refined, few doubt the small percentages required per legislative district to kick off the process are within easy reach.

It goes without saying that for things to accelerate this quickly also implies that in the view of those behind it, the move will likely receive the kind of scrutiny they approve of, from the Supreme Court. If that’s the case, the Senate runs an even greater risk of being defeated before it can even fight for its life.


But the Senate found a way back and it was by means of a bold gambit: proposing a constituent assembly, but strictly on terms favorable to itself, institutionally: it will have to be a joint session, with each chamber voting independently, and passing the proposals by the required majority for each. And only when it comes to the economic provisions of the Charter. These are, actually, the proposals that have gotten as close to a public consensus as can exist. Businessmen want it. Both chambers want it. The President wants it. It accomplishes Charter change purged of the political changes. Zubiri and the other senators become the key to giving the President what he needs—something big, and something unprecedented—faster, cheaper than the House version.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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