There are a few things that simply cannot be railroaded. Changing the basic law of the land is one of them.
Even if we go the way of a constituent assembly (con-ass) as the method for renovating the Constitution, this does not ensure haste will be the order of the day.
The House of Representatives appears to be in sprint mode on the matter of Charter change. That chamber wants a draft ready for submission in a plebiscite by May this year. According to that schedule, elections under the framework of federalism (and possibly also parliamentary government) might happen May next year – originally the schedule for midterm elections, where many congressmen should have hit their term limits and where some might have districts they can win in.
The Comelec, the agency that will administer the conduct of a plebiscite if ever such a thing happens, made it clear they will need at least to two months to prepare for the sovereign exercise. That means a draft for a new constitution must be ready by the end of February.
The schedule is certainly tight. It is arguably too tight to actually happen.
Con-ass will not happen without the participation of the Senate. Here the process begins to look problematic.
The Senate appears intent on exercising its independence. This begins with the chamber’s insistence on a separate vote on whatever draft charter emerges.
Then there is the matter of separate public hearings. Senator Lacson is of the opinion that any of his peers who participates in the House process ought to be expelled from the upper chamber.
The House demonstrated its capacity for speed. Terminating all remaining interpellations, the House passed its resolution favoring a constituent assembly in record time.
The Senate, however, marches to a different drummer. As the chamber began discussions on Charter change and how to go about it, a large pool of resource persons was called in to participate in the deliberations. They included former magistrates, academics, civil society groups and local government officials.
Ed Garcia, member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that wrote the 1987 Charter, gave everyone some sage advice. Our people, he admonished, will not trust the outcome if they do not trust the process.
Garcia recalled that in 1986, notwithstanding the limited time they had to frame a new constitution, the commission went around the country to consult with as many groups as possible. It was an inclusive process that ensured public support for the basic law eventually drafted.
In 2005, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo convened a Consultative Commission for Charter Change. I was honored to have served that body as a commissioner. This commission actually produced a draft constitution for adoption either by means of a constituent assembly or through a people’s initiative.
Like the 1986 Constitutional Commission convened by President Corazon Aquino, the 2005 Commission conducted extensive public consultations. The 2005 Commission undertook a nationwide roadshow, presenting the draft constitution to citizens nationwide.
Today, the Senate seems to be, as Garcia put it, in “marathon” mode. The senators appear inclined to exhaustively discuss every nuance in the proposed new charter. That is not good news to the lords of the House.
Recently, a group of policy experts came up with a policy paper so aptly titled “If Federalism is the Answer, What is the Question?” That hits the crux of the matter.
Senator Ralph Recto points out that in all his years in the public service, no one has walked up to him demanding a shift to federalism. It is simply an option that does not spring from the grassroots. It could, therefore, be an option difficult to sell to the grassroots.
Federalism is now presented to us as some sort of cure-all for all the problems associated with uneven development. Those who do this will probably have profitable careers selling snake oil to the ignorant.
In all possibility, we have uneven development because we are an archipelago with a weak logistics backbone. The solution, therefore, is to modernize our infrastructure as Build, Build, Build is trying to do in order to broaden our base of growth and bring neglected island economies into the mainstream.
In a word, the problem is with the substructure of our economy. The solution could not be in the realm of the superstructure. An engineering problem could not possibly have a political solution.
You know what has been said about lawyers seeing every problem as a legal one. In the same way, if all you have is a hammer, every problem presents itself as a nail. If the weapon you have at hand is a supermajority, then all the problems of the land should have a constitutional solution.
Therefore, whether one confronts a historical grievance, a problem with market access or uneven regional development, the solution has to be federalism. It is the only solution the political aristocracy can fabricate without significant loss of privilege.
Former chief justice Hilario Davide warned, during the Senate hearing, that federalism could be just another word for feudalism. This is because shifting to a federal form without first solving the problem of political dynasties will only entrench the old irresponsible elite that brought us to where we are.
Then again, it could be that federalism is the answer. But we have to thoroughly uncover why it is so. We need an encompassing and inclusive conversation about it – and perhaps consider a long-evolution into a federal end-state.