'Can’t they wait?' Sotto asks as House panel holds 'Con-Ass' ahead of session resumption

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 13) — Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III said a constituent assembly can only be conducted once Congress resumes session on Monday.

"The only way a Con-Ass can be initiated and considered to sit as one is if it's done in plenary and session assembled eh Monday pa resumption," Sotto said in a text message. "Maipilit na lang [They are just forcing it]. Can't they wait?"

In a tweet, Sotto also said the right rules and procedures should be followed when it comes to amending the constitution.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri shared Sotto's sentiment and said, "Congress is in recess so I'm not sure how there was plenary action on their resolution to form a constituent assembly. Our rules only allow committee hearings to take place during the break."

House lawmakers on Monday started deliberations on proposed changes to the constitution's economic provisions, with opinions split over amendment and voting procedures.

House Committee on Constitutional Amendments chair Alfredo Garbin, led deliberation on the Resolution of Both Houses 2 that will lift the "restrictive" economic provisions in the 1987 charter. But the first hour of the hearing was met with concerns among lawmakers after he claimed that they are already convening as a Con-Ass, "exercising [their] constituent power."

Vice panel chair Lorenz Defensor sided with Garbin, noting that no formalities are necessary to amend the charter.

"The provisions of the Constitution are silent and once we convene to discuss this House resolution in amending our Constitution, we are already acting as a Con-Ass exercising our constituent power," he said.

Under the constitution, Congress through a vote of three-fourths of all members can propose amendments or revisions to the charter. This is what is known as a constituent assembly, which is different from a constitutional convention which requires nationwide elections to select delegates who will draft the amendments. Any amendment or revision shall be valid when ratified by a majority of votes cast in a plebiscite.

RBH 2 seeks to ease limits on foreign ownership of lands, educational institutions, public utilities, and mass media firms. But the resolution, filed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, indicates that Congress should convene as a constituent assembly and approve amendments to the Constitution by a three-fourths vote of all lawmakers, with "each House voting separately."

For senior lawmaker Edcel Lagman of Albay, the panel cannot sit as a Con-Ass, and a joint voting among senators and congressmen in one setting is necessary.

"That's strange to me...No committee of the Senate or the House can sit as a constituent assembly, because a constituent assembly is composed of members of the House and Senate in a joint setting or assembly," he said.

Members of the Makabayan bloc also expressed a similar sentiment and asked how votes of lawmakers will be acknowledged in a virtual set-up.

"A House committee cannot just declare motu propio that is now being constituted as a Constituent Assembly," Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said.

"Hindi pwedeng Con-Ass agad ang turing sa kapulungang ito. Hindi rin pwedeng via text message ang pagboto ng mga mambabatas sa Cha-cha gaya ng nakasaad sa rules ng komite. Ano ito, Pinoy Big Brother?" said Gabriela Party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas, referring to voting procedures in a local reality TV show.

[Translation: You cannot call this meeting a Con-Ass already. You cannot also accept that lawmakers will vote on Cha-cha via text message, as stated in the rules of the committee. What is this? Pinoy Big Brother?]

Garbin then clarified that the required three-fourths vote among lawmakers will only be done in the plenary and not in the committee level, once the measure is up for third reading.

The RBH 2 seeks to open up more foreign capital investments in the country, as the phrase "unless otherwise provided by the law" will be inserted in restrictive provisions on national patrimony and economy; education, science and technology, arts, culture and sports; and general provisions of the charter.

Garbin and Defensor reiterated that the panel only limits itself to discussion on the said economic provisions, and will not tackle any possible political amendments, such as proposal on term extension and the abolition of term limits among national and local government officials.