How economic Cha-Cha can work

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

Speaker Martin Romualdez announced a few days ago that in 2024 the House of Representatives will seriously pursue the amendment of the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. There have been numerous attempts at changing our constitution, but all have failed.

Pertinently, the Speaker promises to limit the amendment to the said economic provisions only, thus the branding of this move as Economic Cha-Cha (Charter Change). As expected though, his candor was met with stern rebuke from several sectors, which included Senate President Migz Zubiri and the usual Cha-Cha nay-sayers. So, it is highly possible that this new Romualdez initiative could meet the same fatal fate of its predecessors.

But there is still a way for Speaker Romualdez to make his Economic Cha-Cha work. It is totally contingent however on him staying fully committed to his promise to amend only the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution, namely the following:

  1. On the exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources in Article XII, Section 2;
  2. On the operation of a public utility in Article XII, Section 11;
  3. The education sector in Article IX, Section 4 (2);
  4. Mass media in Article XVI, Section 11 (1); and,
  5. Advertising in Article XVI, Section 11 (2).

If the amendment proposal is limited only to these particular provisions of our constitution, then Speaker Romualdez can consider the suggestion of one of the framers. According to the late Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., “both houses might decide to do it the way they pass ordinary legislation—that is, as they are where they are but voting separately by a three-fourths majority, and only coming together, the way they do in ordinary legislation, to reconcile differences.”

How would this work? First, both the Senate and the House of Representatives can initially agree on the formal wording of the amendment proposal. Then they would separately deal with the latter as each would in the regular legislation process. Each chamber will deliberate and debate on the merits and pitfalls of amending these economic provisions of our constitution and register their respective decision on the agreed amendment proposal.

There is a consensus in both chambers of Congress supportive of Economic Cha-Cha. Hence, the amendment proposal will likely carry. A warning though. The Bernas way will not work if there are other amendment proposals involved. The introduction by either chamber of amendment proposals other than the restrictive economic provisions mentioned earlier will scuttle the entire effort completely.

It is important to point out that Congress will only be offering an amendment proposal. Their work here is essentially to present recommendations for voters to consider. Their proposal only becomes binding after we signify our approval or more specifically, when they are “ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite.” (See Article XVII, Section 4)

Therefore, the common resolution embodying the amendment proposal agreed upon by both chambers of Congress should also contain an endorsement to the Commission on Election with an instruction to hold a plebiscite. As per the constitution, the plebiscite “shall be held not earlier than sixty days nor later than ninety days after the approval of such amendment or revision.”

Republic Act No. 6735 or The Initiative and Referendum Act defines plebiscite as “the electoral process by which an initiative on the Constitution is approved or rejected by the people.” (See Section 3 (e)) Thus, in a practical sense, it is an election. A recent plebiscite that we can refer to was held in 2019, when voters in the Bangsamoro region ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law.

And because the plebiscite is to be treated like an election, the date and budget for it must also be given due consideration. One possibility is to schedule the plebiscite simultaneously with the midterm elections in 2025. A separate ballot can be dedicated to the plebiscite question, which would essentially be asking voters if they agreed with the amendment of the restrictive economic provisions or not.

The requirement of a plebiscite is also a stern reminder for us to be actively engaged in every phase of the constitutional reform process. The discussions and deliberations cannot be monopolized by our political elites and be confined within the halls of congress. We must be thoroughly involved from the very beginning because we will be making the final decision at the end of it all.

In sum, there is indeed a viable path for Economic Cha-Cha to proceed in 2024. But it would entail Speaker Romualdez to stay true to his word. More importantly, it will require of him to discipline his colleagues in the House of Representatives to strictly adhere to the script. Deviating from it will automatically render the Bernas way untenable.

Admittedly however, it will still be a huge challenge to bring the Senate on board. But again, if there is genuinely a solid commitment to limit the amendment proposal to just the restrictive economic provisions, then most of the senators would be hard-pressed not to support the initiative.