By Leila Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:51:00 06/05/2009
MANILA, Philippines—There is no reason to take House Resolution No. 1109 to the Supreme Court because what the majority members in the House of Representatives essentially did on Tuesday night was to announce that they would commit a crime, constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas said Thursday.
“To my mind, the only thing they achieved was that they shot their foot. They did not do any damage yet,” Bernas said in a forum at Ateneo de Manila University.
“What they said was, ’Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to violate the Constitution.’ But they did not violate the Constitution. That is why, to my mind, there is nothing yet to bring to the Supreme Court,” he said.
And if the House tries to bypass the Senate and takes proposed constitutional amendments to the Commission on Elections for a plebiscite, it will be “a fatal mistake,” Bernas also said.
“The amendments can only take effect if approved by a plebiscite, which they have to present to the Senate,” he pointed out.
Commenting on the possible extension of the terms of elective officials, Bernas said the Supreme Court and the military would play a part in pushing it through.
“So how real is the threat of extension? It is real only if the Supreme Court will cooperate … and more so the military,” he said.
The alternative, he said, might be a people power revolt similar to what took place in 1986. He noted that after that revolt, the justices of the Supreme Court were replaced.
“Justices might think of that if ever they are tempted to cooperate in the gang rape of the Constitution,” Bernas said.
Ball in their court
Even House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora said there was no reason to question HR 1109 before the Supreme Court because there was no controversy yet.
“Why should I walk into that kind of trap?” he said in a phone interview. “”The ball is clearly in [the House majority’s] court, not mine. I’m not going to make it easier for them by dancing to their tune.”
Zamora said he refused to believe that the proponents of HR 1109 only wanted to trigger a ruling from the Supreme Court on the proper way to conduct a constituent assembly (Con-ass).
“Of course not,” he said. “You can’t call a Con-ass just to drink coffee … Of course, you’re going to discuss amendments.”
He also said the difference in the opinions of the proponents of HR 1109 on what to do next meant that “they were not the masterminds” of the resolution.
The gold rush area that is Compostela Valley is a disaster waiting to happen. The steep mountainsides are honeycombed with tunnels dug by small-scale miners lured by that yellow mineral that many people are willing to die for. Well, they are dying for it. A landslide during heavy rains last Monday has killed 27 persons so far, and the digging and counting for more bodies have not yet stopped. That was the second fatal landslide in the area in two years.
Even without the tunnels, Compostela Valley is prone to landslides. The steep mountainsides surrounding it are devoid of trees whose roots should have held the soil together. Loggers raped the forests a long time ago. Miners made the soil even looser by digging tunnels into it to look for gold. Then they built their huts on the valley below, at the foot of the mountain. It was like committing suicide.
About 50 miners were taking shelter in these huts last Monday when a loud noise roared like thunder. Then they saw boulders and mud tumbling down the mountainside toward them. They all began to run but the wall of mud and boulders overtook them and buried them. Isn’t it ironic that the miners who took great pains to burrow into the soil looking for gold are now buried under that same soil, perhaps with gold nuggets buried with them?
This is not the first landslide that has killed scores of people in the Philippines. Nor would it be the last. As the typhoon season dumps more rains on the mountainsides, there would be more landslides, killing the people below.
As in Compostela Valley, authorities have identified areas in danger of landslides and have advised people in the path of these potential landslides to move to safer locations. But people are hardheaded, especially those in the gold rush area. Greed has closed their eyes and common sense to danger.
But death also lurks in places away from the gold rush area. Any area below mountains where loggers operated years ago is in danger. For the greedy loggers had stripped the mountains of the forests that held the soil together. We are now reaping the whirlwind that these people started.
Mark my words, there would be more floods and landslides during rainy seasons. With no trees to hold the rainwater soaking the ground, the water would rush down the mountainsides to flood the lowlands. The creeks and rivers would not be able to hold the abundant water. So they would overflow their banks and flood the surrounding countryside.
Worse, the rains would loosen the soil and without plant roots to hold them, the mud, together with boulders, would cascade down the mountainsides and bury the sleeping villages below. It had happened many times before; and it would happen again.
Have you noticed that there are more frequent floods and landslides now with the slightest rain? Those are the handiwork of the loggers, the charcoal-makers and the kaingineros (slash-and-burn farmers).
Local government officials should take great pains to move people living in danger areas to safer locations. If they don’t, there would be nobody left to vote for them in future elections.
* * *
The 2008/2009 Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR), financed by the United Nations, put the blame on the spread of graft and corruption on the executive branch of the government. Congress has abdicated the power of the purse to the executive, the report said.
Wrong. The executive and the legislative branches are actually in cahoots to rob the people of their taxes.
The root cause of all the corruption is the pork barrel hidden in such innocent-sounding appropriations as Countrywide Development Fund and Priority Development Assistance Fund. What is developed is not actually the countryside but the private pockets of legislative and executive officials. Almost half of the appropriation of each and every project goes to corrupt officials. In the process, these officials contaminate private persons who do business with the government such as contractors. Contractors have to kick back about a third of the contract price to government officials or else the contract would be given to somebody else willing to give “commissions.” As a result, the work of the contractor becomes substandard as he has to get back somehow the money he kicked back to officials. There is almost no government project, big or small, that is not tainted with corruption.
Members of the House of Representatives use the sobriquet “power of the purse” in giving themselves the pork barrel allocations. So it has not abdicated this power to the executive. But it is true that Malacañang has an even bigger pork barrel hidden in “intelligence,” “confidential,” “representation” and other high-sounding names. The generic name for all of them is “stolen funds.” They were stolen from the taxpayers.
The executive branch allows Congress to steal the pork barrel funds because Congress also allows it to steal a bigger share. A case of you scratch my back, I scratch yours.
Also, the pork barrel allows Malacañang to control the congressmen and senators by the simple expedient of not releasing the pork of uncooperative legislators. Cooperate and you get your pork; play hard-to-get and you get nothing. That is the Malacañang practice.
Abolish the pork barrel system by obeying the Constitution (it is not in the Charter), and you cut corruption by about two-thirds. Malacañang and Congress will not do that, so it is left to the Supreme Court to overturn its earlier decision that the pork barrel is legal. How can it be legal when the Constitution says that the job of Congress is to enact laws and that of the executive is to implement them? But with the pork, legislators usurp the functions of executive officials such as the secretaries of public works, education, health, etc. Plain common sense.
MANILA, Philippines—Congress has practically abdicated the power of the purse to the executive branch, failing to scrutinize the annual national budget thoroughly and facilitating corruption in the process, a UN-financed study released Wednesday said.
“Congress is given four months to debate the budget. But, more often than not, debates—particularly in the House of Representatives—deal not with policy but rather parochial concerns,” said the 2008/2009 Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR).
“Questions about agency performance are asked only intermittently and superficially. Cost estimates of budget proposals are rarely challenged,” said the PHDR, sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the New Zealand Agency for International Development.
“Weak accountability is facilitated by weak congressional oversight, not only in practice, but in law. In fact, it is the executive and not Congress that wields effective power of the purse,” said Toby Monsod of the NGO Human Development Network, which conducted the study. Monsod is one of the principal authors of the report.
81 excess undersecs, asecs
The 173-page report scored the presidential practice of making “political appointees,” noting 81 “excess” undersecretaries and assistant secretaries as of December 2007 costing the government P58 million a year.
It said 56 percent of the political appointees were “not eligible.”
The Office of the President also accounted for most of the “excess” officials (31), “of whom 89 percent were ineligible,” it said.
The report said Congress, entrusted with control of the purse by the Constitution, had failed to “adequately validate the performance of agencies or the consistency of proposed budgets with state policy.”
“While the budget intends to allocate funds for identifiable deliverables, it pays no attention to whether deliverables from the previous year(s) have been delivered or not,” the report said.
Unused audit reports
“Part of the problem is that audit and accomplishment reports of previous years are not used intensively during the budget preparation and debate,” it added.
The report said agencies were required by law to submit quarterly work and financial reports to Congress, Commission on Audit, Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Office of the President.
“However, agencies fail to meet this requirement in a complete and timely manner, to the chagrin even of the DBM, the executive’s own budget oversight agency. Congress in turn fails to pursue the matter,” the PHDR said.
The report also scored the “imbalance in the power of the purse” with the executive branch able to “override the mandate of the General Appropriations Act.”
The executive branch does this by not releasing funds, transferring “unused” appropriations to “savings and using this amount for other purposes,” using “discretionary, intelligence, or confidential funds—over which the legislature officially has no oversight—as well as ‘unprogrammed’ funds in the budget.”
By deciding the level of debt service, Malacañang can significantly affect the “total amount of resources in play over the year,” the report said.
Huge Palace funds
Monsod, who presented highlights of the report at its launch, said the amount of presidential funds beyond congressional oversight was “overwhelming,” making the pork barrel of lawmakers “seem almost petty.”
In contrast to the graft-ridden pork barrel that averaged P8 billion from 2004 to 2008, the report said the one-liner appropriations or the “lump sums” under the control of the President amounted to P224.44 billion or 16 percent of the national budget in the 2009 National Expenditure Program (NEP).
“In the spirit of transparency, it is crucial to find out which of these one-liners are actually backed up by plans and programs or which simply serve as discretionary funds,” the report said.
Also “scattered” in the 2009 NEP are P1.12 billion in confidential and intelligence funds used “upon the discretion of the President and are not subject to proper audit.”
“Although one must assume the necessary secrecy in the use of these funds, it is possible to create appropriate oversight mechanisms,” the PHDR said.
The report suggested a bipartisan legislative select committee to exercise oversight over confidential, intelligence and similar discretionary funds “with the condition that the details of the use of these funds cannot be divulged to anyone outside of the committee in the interest of national security.”
“Weak congressional oversight over (foreign financial aid) and other funds, combined with inherently powerful spending powers of the executive has, unfortunately, also invited corruption, weakening government institutions even further,” the report said.
49 assistants, consultants
The PHDR also pointed out that the numbers of “presidential consultants/advisers (PC/PAs)” have “significantly” risen from 2002.
There were 22 presidential assistants in 2002, 39 in 2003, 44 in 2004, 37 in 2005, and 49 in 2008, the report said.
“The number has risen significantly since 2002 after a steady decline in the 1994-1998 period (the Ramos administration), a slight spike in 1999 (the Estrada administration) and a sharp decline in 2001. By the beginning of 2008, however, the number of PC/PAs had reached an all-time high of 49,” Monsod said.
Monsod said the report noted that “overlapping bodies cause confusion and demoralization.”
“How, for example, are authorities defined between the presidential adviser on foreign affairs, the special adviser for energy affairs, and two presidential assistants for education, and the official Cabinet secretaries for these same portfolios?” she said.
“Even the designations themselves show confusion, for instance, as between the PA for job generation and the PA for food security and job creation,” Monsod said.
And there are the “task force on anti-smuggling” and the “presidential smuggling group to apprehend, seize, investigate and prosecute acts involving smuggling, unlawful importation and other similar violation,” she added. With a report from Rose Ann Samorin, trainee
MANILA, Philippines—Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte was left red in the face Tuesday after his peers in the majority ignored his plea to junk his proposal to amend the Constitution and instead made a spirited drive to bring it to a plenary debate.
But the advance of House Resolution No. 1109 penned by Villafuerte was delayed for another week after the majority failed to muster enough votes at the committee on constitutional amendments to carry to the floor the measure seeking to convene a constituent assembly (Con-ass).
“Isn’t it pathetic that after I have withdrawn, most everybody can now say you’re the only one who has withdrawn, we will continue with the resolution that you have drafted anyway? Isn’t that pathetic?” he said.
Villafuerte urged the majority to follow his lead in abandoning HR 1109 and all efforts to change the Constitution, including House Resolution No. 737 that Speaker Prospero Nograles is pushing to amend the Charter purportedly to get rid of restrictions on foreign investments.
Villafuerte declared that Charter change (Cha-cha) was dead after he announced his withdrawal of HR 1109 on Friday, charging angrily that Nograles had delayed action on it and ignored his request that it be acted on ahead of HR 737.
But Villafuerte’s colleagues at the committee on constitutional amendments proceeded to vote 12-4 (with one abstention) in rejecting a motion by Akbayan party-list Rep. Risa Hontiveros Baraquel to archive HR 1109 after the principal drafter had abandoned it.
Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo and Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino both disputed Villafuerte’s claim that he was a mere author of HR 1109, pointing out that he actively solicited their signatures endorsing HR 1109 during a party hosted by Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez.
Contrary to Villafuerte’s claim, Romualdo and Antonino insisted that there was enough time to lay the groundwork for Charter change.
“Let us not be misled,” Antonino said. “He personally came to me to get my signature and he even claimed this will be easy.”
Even Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez did not look too kindly at Villafuerte’s presumption that Charter change would be dead with his withdrawal from the initiative.
Golez said Villafuerte was just one of the 173 signatories to HR 1109.
“It is not up to the committee to fathom the genesis of HR 1109. This is not relevant,” Golez said.
After frustrating Villafuerte’s bid to shoot down HR 1109, Antonino immediately made a motion for the committee to endorse the resolution for plenary debate. This would allow the congressmen to decide the Charter change mode.
HR 1109, based on a vague provision in the Constitution, seeks to turn Congress into an assembly to introduce changes in the Charter by a joint vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
With its dominant numbers, allies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo can easily override the Senate, which is opposing the measure and is threatening to challenge its constitutionality in the Supreme Court.
Nograles’ HR 737—described as the “fourth mode” of revising the Constitution—calls for amendments by a three-fourths vote in each of the two chambers, instead of a simple majority as required in passing bills.
Villafuerte claims HR 737 is patently illegal, pointing out that the modes of introducing changes in the Constitution only calls for either a constitutional convention, turning Congress into a constituent assembly, or through a “people’s initiative.”
Bayan Muna party-list Rep Teodoro Casiño accused the majority of trying to railroad HR 1109 even though it had yet to get a sponsor in the committee or be tackled in a public hearing.
But the committee’s chair, La Union Rep. Victor Ortega, explained that his panel’s role was just to recommend the Cha-cha modes. “I want to reach Charter change by whatever road it takes,” he said.
When Ortega insisted in acting on Antonino’s motion to vote on whether to endorse HR 1109 without further debates, many of the minority members decided to walk out, along with Villafuerte.
Cat’s out of the bag
However, most of the majority lawmakers were absent during the voting and could only muster five votes and failed to get the measure to the plenary.
Quezon Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III said it was a small victory that delayed the endorsement of HR 1109.
“I believe they will make a more determined effort next week to vote for the approval of HR 1109,” he said.
He said the mixed voting showed that some of majority members still listen to reason in rejecting Con-ass.
But Tañada warned that the majority was clearly pushing for Con-ass as the preferred mode for Charter change after Antonino declared that he would move to defer action on HR 737 on the floor once HR 1109 was taken up in the plenary.
“The cat’s out of the bag, they want HR 1109 over HR 737, and that is more dangerous because anything can happen in a Con-ass, including extension of the President’s term,” he said. Ms Arroyo’s term expires next year.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri Tuesday urged Nograles, the Lakas president, and Villafuerte, the Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi) head, to stop squabbling, saying the two political parties were heading for a historic merger on May 28.
“It’s counterproductive,” he said, urging the two to join their members “in uniting for the good of the country.” He said the Lakas-Kampi merger was “beyond these two personalities.” With a report from Christine O. Avendaño
MANILA, Philippines—The House of Representatives will need about P2.31 billion for the pork barrel alone of the additional 33 party-list lawmakers that should be proclaimed because of a Supreme Court ruling that is effective immediately. This, on top of the P200 million needed for their staff and day-to-day operations.
The amounts exclude the expenses for their new offices, electricity and other needs for the remaining eight months of the year, Speaker Prospero Nograles said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court increased to 55 the number of seats in the House for party-list groups, or 20 percent of the chamber as prescribed by the Constitution, when it ordered the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to follow a new formula for allotting party-list seats.
There are currently 22 seats in the 14th Congress occupied by party-list groups.
Each member of the House is entitled to P70 million a year in Priority Development Assistance Fund, more commonly known as the pork barrel, to finance their pet projects. Senators get P200 million a year.
The pork barrel is not given in cash, though. The lawmakers just identify the projects and beneficiaries for which funding should be allocated.
A total of P200 million is needed for the salaries of the lawmakers’ staff, office supplies and other office needs.
A lawmaker is entitled to a minimum of six regular staff members in the House, plus consultants.
Lawmakers also get transportation allowances, which varies depending on where their districts are located.
The House would need to pass a supplemental budget to fund the new lawmakers’ needs, according to Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte and Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia.
Garcia said the budget for 2009, which was already signed into law by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was intended for a House of 240 members.
Nograles also has another problem aside from where to get the funding.
Where to put them
He does not know where to put his 33 new colleagues since there are no office spaces currently available.
“My other problem is where to put these new party-list congressmen and where to get new funding for their staff and day-to-day operations because they have no allocation under the 2009 General Appropriations Act,” the Speaker said in a statement.
The other day, Nograles said that if there would be no budget for the new lawmakers, “then everybody takes a cut, I guess.”
He said new offices would be available at the Batasan Complex in Quezon City after the completion of the four-story South Wing Annex Building. The P700-million building is expected to be finished next year.
But the Speaker said he had no choice but to accommodate the 33 party-list representatives.
MANILA, Philippines—A controversial resolution was filed Wednesday in the House of Representatives calling for a Constituent Assembly (Con-ass) to amend the Constitution even without the Senate’s participation.
Critics said the measure sponsored by Speaker Prospero Nograles was a ploy to draw the opposition into challenging its constitutionality in the Supreme Court, dominated by administration-appointed justices, and urged lawmakers not to take the bait.
The resolution seeks to gather 197 signatures, the magic number its principal author, Rep. Luis Villafuerte of Camarines Sur, contends is needed to pass Charter revisions by members of the Senate and the House of Representatives voting jointly.
Majority of the senators believe that Charter revisions in the Con-ass mode require approval by three fourths of members of the two chambers voting separately. They contend that the Villafuerte resolution is unconstitutional and have announced they would challenge it in the Supreme Court.
“There is no road map to this but we have to be careful because maybe this is being done on purpose,” said Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III of the Liberal Party.
“Those who are advocating this mode is hoping that those against it would (go to court) immediately. We are all wary of this, of playing into their hands,” said Tañada.
Tañada said that most of the justices were appointed by the President, which could explain why her allies were challenging those opposing Charter change (Cha-cha) to go to court.
“I’m not saying the Supreme Court will decide in favor of them. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. But why are they challenging us? Maybe they know something we don’t know, we have to read between the lines,” said Tañada.
On Monday, Nograles introduced House Resolution No. 737—described as a “fourth mode” of Cha-cha calling for amendments to economic provisions in the Constitution by employing procedures in approving bills, but not by simple majority vote in each chamber but by three fourths.
The Constitution can only be changed through a people’s initiative, a constitutional convention and a constituent assembly.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said that Ms Arroyo’s allies have been moving to break every rule in the House to provoke the opposition into raising the issue in the high tribunal.
The Villafuerte resolution specifies that there would be elections in 2010 and the term of the president, vice president, senators, representatives and governors would not be extended.
With the filing, Villafuerte said Nograles should first set aside resolution 737 so that the House could debate first on the mode of changing the Charter.
Nograles’ 737 resolution has been scheduled for plenary debates. Villafuerte drafted the Con-ass resolution (No. 1109), but said its main author is Nograles.
Likely court challenge
Villafuerte said Nograles’ 737 resolution was “seriously objectionable.”
“Since Speaker Nograles himself is the author also of the resolution that I drafted, I think the proper procedure would be to suspend consideration of his 737 resolution on economic provision,” Villafuerte told reporters.
However, his proposal to defer discussions on resolution 737 was rejected Wednesday night.
Villafuerte said he expected that resolution 1109 would trigger a “justiciable” controversy to trigger a Supreme Court case to decide if the two Houses should vote separately or jointly.
The Con-ass resolution was signed by 174 lawmakers. It states that the mode for Charter change should first be established before any specific proposal to amend it could be made.
Villafuerte also said in an interview that he only wants a Supreme Court case to be filed.
“Even if we get a favorable ruling, after the convening is considered constitutional, it is too late to remand or bring back the issue to Congress for the acceptance of specific amendments. At that time, that’s already the campaign period. Moreover, we still have to go through a plebiscite,” he said.
Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, president of the United Opposition, Wednesday said administration allies must concede defeat in their move to revise the Constitution after the Supreme Court ruled to increase the number of party-list seats in Congress.
“With one decision on a case filed a few years back, the Supreme Court has ended all these foolish attempts by Ms Arroyo’s allies to extend her term through Cha-cha,” Binay said. With reports from Allison W. Lopez and Rachel Miranda
The so-called “fourth mode” for amending the Constitution is nothing more and nothing less than a trial balloon. It is one of many; and if today a “fourth” has been proposed, we can expect a fifth, a sixth—as many as it takes. All these so-called modes should all be understood as attempts to achieve—by hook or by crook and late in the game—the ultimate ambition of the administration coalition: to deprive the public of its historic right and exclusive privilege of selecting the head of state and government of our country.
The present Constitution, unlike the 1973 and 1935 Charters that were more detailed, practically states that there are two ways to propose amendments to the Constitution (because people’s initiative is basically a dead letter). The first is by means of a constituent assembly; the second is through a Constitutional Convention. In truth, the distinction is rather artificial, for it all depends on Congress to decide whether it will itself propose the amendments to the public, or pass the task to a convention—which includes the possibility (actually proposed in the 1960s and more recently by the President’s election lawyer, Romulo Macalintal) of an appointed, not elected, Constitutional Convention.
Part of the confusion stems from a residual historical memory of the Congress under the 1935 Constitution, whose provisions on amendments required the legislature to formally convene, in joint session, for the purpose of considering amendments. The present Charter makes no such explicit requirement; indeed, considering how verbose our Constitution is, its provisions are remarkably terse: any amendment to, or revision of, the Constitution, it says, can be proposed by Congress “upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members.” Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ has written in this paper how the wording of the Charter was an oversight, dating back to when the Constitutional Commission thought it was going to approve a unicameral National Assembly.
But as it turned out, the commission approved a bicameral Congress, and Bernas and many others have pointed out that in terms of proposing amendments, Congress must conform to the nature of the beast—in this case, composed of two, co-equal chambers, neither of which can fulfill the functions of Congress without the other. The political problem this raises is that, for whatever reason, the House of Representatives considers the Senate unfriendly to proposals that would abolish either the presidency as a nationally-elected chief executive who is head of government, or the Senate, or both.
The 2007 elections also left the administration with absolute dominance in the House but very mixed results in the Senate; and with senators responsible to a national constituency, it is difficult for senators to abandon their traditional role as fiscalizers of the administration of the day. So the administration has been scratching its head, trying to figure out a way that will neutralize the institutional veto power of the Senate, especially in the case of amendments.
Not to mention what was, until recently, a Supreme Court with a marked disinclination to tolerate any constitutional foolishness—for it would be to the high court that the Senate would run should the House try to railroad it out of existence.
Time, however, not only heals all wounds but can sort out even the thorniest of political problems. The composition of the Supreme Court has changed drastically from its recent heyday as the bulwark against any constitutional tinkering by the administration. The opposition in the House has been starved and its membership reduced; the Senate is bogged down in presidential campaign intramurals, and will be hard pressed to put up a united front.
Notice that administration loyalists have tried to plead for a debate to take place, as if what’s going on is some sort of harmless academic discussion. It is not; what is at stake is a go-for-broke effort that involves a dangerous experiment with the law and institutions. The underlying assumption is as bold as it is cynical: that the public no longer cares enough to seriously resist an administration riding roughshod over the separation of powers. For to continue the debate now is to provide the pretext for a plebiscite in which political machines, and not public opinion, will dictate the future government of this country.