Malilong: Self-serving

Frank Malilong

LAST week, the committee on constitutional amendments of the House of Representatives met behind closed doors. When they emerged from seclusion, they were bearing gifts for themselves and their colleagues.

You guessed it right: The Cha-Cha (Charter Change) train is being revved up again with my friend, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro, at the steering wheel. Rufus is a staunch federalism advocate; the last time I met him was at a forum on the subject hosted by industrialist Norberto Quisumbing Jr.

But changing our form of government was not one of the four proposed constitutional amendments that Rufus’s committee came up with during their secret meeting. Instead, they agreed to: Increase their terms of office to five years, relax the economic provisions purportedly to promote foreign investments, increase the number of senators from 24 to 27 to be distributed among nine regions, and provide for the election of the president and vice president as one team.

Oh yes, they included local officials and senators as beneficiaries of the expanded terms although in the case of senators, they will actually lose one year of their current six-year term. In an obvious effort to appease the senators, the House committee proposed that they be allowed to serve a maximum of three instead of two consecutive terms.

Rufus denies that they are extending their terms since the proposed amendments will take effect only after 2022 when their current term shall have ended. This is misleading. In 2022, everything will start from scratch if the proposal is carried out. Thus, congressmen and local officials who shall have by then served out the current constitutional limit of nine consecutive years and therefore barred from seeking re-election will be free to run again for the first of three possible five-year terms.

Considering the huge advantage that an incumbent enjoys, it is possible for, say, a congressman to hold office for a total of 24 consecutive years. If this is not term extension, I do not know what is.

Senate President Tito Sotto was right in describing the proposal as self-serving. The congressmen decry their being unjustly judged as working only for their own interests but given this latest example, can you really blame the public for being suspicious of their motives?

If it is any consolation, the proposed changes are still far away from becoming effective. First, the congressmen have to deal with the senators, majority of whom hold the view that in a constituent assembly, the two houses should vote separately. This is a ticklish issue that is likely to reach the Supreme Court.

Even assuming that both houses vote, whether jointly or separately, to approve the proposed amendments, they will have to be submitted to the people for ratification in a plebiscite. The expansion of their term to five years is a carrot that local officials will find hard to resist so it is a given that they will campaign for ratification.

But I have not lost hope in our people’s capacity to rise above themselves, discern, determine what is good for them in the long run and reject the blandishments of politicians. That is the only right thing to do. If they don’t, we’re in trouble as Congress can do anything they like, assured that the people will swallow everything, hook, line and sinker.