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Ease foreign-ownership limits first, Congress told

By Elijah Felice E. Rosales & Jovee Marie N. dela Cruz

Business groups urged Congress to prioritize the amendment of the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership as it moves to revise the highest law of the land, but maintained that the two chambers must vote separately in respect to the Senate’s autonomy.

The Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines and the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines said they back Congress’s move to amend the 1987 Constitution. They are most particular with their support on the proposal to lift economic restrictions in the Constitution, saying this will pave the way for a more conducive business environment.

“Since 2000 Philippine business leaders and economists have recommended replacing the constitutional restrictions on foreign equity with specific laws,” the groups said in a statement. They argued amending the Constitution is “crucial” to the fulfillment of this reform.

They also took note that, in many countries, restrictions on foreign ownership are not indicated in their Constitution, but is embodied in laws passed through legislation or executive action. The groups said this fluidity allows countries to change economic restrictions at any given time to suit shifting national interests.

“If approved by Congress and, subsequently, in a plebiscite, the amendments would allow Congress to pass future laws to change the current constitutional restrictions. The usual legislative procedures would be followed, with hearings and full consideration in both the House [of Representatives] and the Senate and possible presidential vetoes,” they said.

The groups made clear, though, constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership on selected industries will remain in place until specific laws to amend or lift them are enacted either by Congress, or the President. “In the meantime, each restriction will remain in place.”

They added relaxing economic restrictions will be significant in the country’s role as one of the major players in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as in its intent to pursue better trade relations with nontraditional partners, such as Russia, under President Duterte’s self-styled independent foreign policy.

“[The] government should maximize the amount of foreign investments generated as a means to drive down unemployment and underemployment,” they said.

“Considering the above points, it is our strong position that there is no better time than now to begin the process of updating the outdated economic restrictions in our Constitution. The Philippines has enjoyed the enhanced growth prospects and is on the radar screen of the international investment community—and these will be further improved by higher foreign investments coupled with improved environment in doing business in the country,” the groups said.

Easing restrictions on foreign ownership will work to the country’s advantage, they said, as it will lead to “fresh infusion of financial resources for our undercapitalized sectors, the introduction of new technologies to spur greater innovation and efficiency in our industries and the promotion of healthy competition.”

“It will be unfortunate if the Philippines fails to take advantage of this golden opportunity and realize the potentials that a liberalized trade and investment regime will bring,” the groups added.

The groups also called on the House of Representatives to recognize the autonomy of the Senate and allow it to vote separately. “We deem it more democratic for the two [chambers] to vote separately so as to recognize the autonomy of the Senate body and to avoid diluting the voice of our senators in this critical process.”

Senators reached a consensus last Wednesday not to join congressmen on a joint voting in amending the Constitution. Lawmakers from the upper chamber stood firm on their position they will be voting separately in revising the highest law of the land.

“We understand this be the intention of the framers of the 1987 Constitution and this is also consistent with the legislative process. The proposed amendments shall then be presented and discussed with the public before seeking approval via nationwide plebiscite,” the groups said. They also recommended Congress to make use of a duly-elected constitutional convention (Con-con) in amending the Constitution. They said a Con-con body will present a more diverse, independent and prospective approach in revising the highest law of the land.

“A Con-con body…will be purposely elected for the specific task of revising the Constitution and, therefore, individuals who wish to be elected for this role can properly present themselves and their views during the campaign period. While such mode would entail greater costs to implement and probably more time, it should be seen as a justifiable investment that will result to significant social returns in the long run,” the groups said.

Rep. Roger G. Mercado of the Lone District of Southern Leyte said amending the Constitution through a Con-con is not practical, as it will cost the government around P11 billion. He said it will be economical if senators and congressmen just convene as a constituent assembly (Con-ass).

Federal government

The power of legislation and the power of the purse should be given to federal assemblymen alone under the proposed Philippine Federal government, a leader of the House of Representatives said last Sunday.

Rep. Vicente Veloso of the Third District of Leyte, vice chairman of the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments, said the power of lawmaking and the power of the purse should be vested only to federal assemblymen to expedite the passage of measures and enactment of laws.

“We are thinking that legislation will be basic responsibility of congressmen…we call them federal assemblymen,” Veloso said in a radio interview.

Veloso, also chairman of a subcommittee proposing amendments to the 1987 Constitution, said senators should instead focus on the confirmation of appointment of other government officials and treaty ratification.

He said the Senate may also be used as “training ground for presidency.”

“The Senate, we will make it a point to be the training ground for presidency. They don’t have to concern anymore on the [annual] budget [deliberations] and lawmaking. [But] they could focus on confirmation of appointed government officials, including in the Judiciary and treaty ratification,” added Veloso, a former Court of Appeals associate justice.

Voting separately

Veloso also said the 1987 Constitution was very clear and not silent on the joint voting issue during a Con-ass.

He said Congress, which is composed of the Lower House and Upper House, should vote jointly when it convenes into Con-ass to propose amendments to the Constitution. “Section 23, Paragraph 1 [of the Constitution] shows that only Congress can declare that we are in state of war…Congress voting separately. Meaning, they know how to use the term voting separately. Not only that, Article seven, Section 9, on the vacancy in the Office of Vice President. The president will nominate either a senator or a congressman to become the vice president. And that nomination will have to be confirmed by Congress voting separately. So in two occasions, in two different articles, they used the words voting separately,” Veloso added.

“So [the question here is] why they did not mention it in Article XVII on constituent assembly? If we vote separately all that is needed is seven senators or three-fourths of the Senate,” he said.

Earlier, Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez said the House of Representatives is maintaining its position on the issue of joint voting.    “The 1987 Constitution was clear that Congress should vote jointly in a constituent assembly,” Alvarez said.

Senators have earlier argued that voting should be done separately because the greater number of the House would practically drown out the Senate position.

Section 1, Article seven of the Constitution provides that “any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by: Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members.”

“We are the representatives of the people. We are the nearest link to the people, so why should the senators’ votes outweigh he congressmen’s?”  Alvarez added.

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