Asian Century Journal

An Asian Century Philippines Publication

Rightsizing of Government Must Start with Abolition of the Senate

By Ado Paglinawan

The President’s push for the rightsizing of all agencies, departments, and government-owned or controlled corporations, with no exemptions, must start with our fat legislature that has been the worst source of gridlock in governance.


I recently almost fell of my chair when presumptive Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri said that a charter change is not a priority for now because his chamber would rather focus on economic and health bills in the next twelve months.


Zubiri has no appetite to talk about charter change when the new administration has just started. He says he thinks it’s too controversial.


Aquilino Pimentel III, who is a unique third termer in the Senate, and who may be the next minority leader, also rejected charter change for now. 


Even last year, the government task force on constitutional reform has called on the Senate to prioritize deliberations on charter change (cha-cha), pushing for a plebiscite to coincide with the recent May 2022 national elections.


At that time in July, House committee on constitutional amendments chair Alfredo Garbin Jr. said, the three priority economic legislations that President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be prioritized — the Foreign Investments Act; the Trade Liberalization Act; and the Public Service Act — “will not be complete without constitutional amendments, the mother of all economic legislations, which is lifting the economic restrictions of the Constitution.”


As a matter of fact, Garbin added, economic charter change would enable Congress to pass the necessary laws seen to help the country recover fully from the adverse effects of the pandemic. This position was supported by the Interagency Task Force on Constitutional Reform (IATF-Core), chaired by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, by passing two resolutions last month: the first commending the House of Representatives for its adoption of Resolution of Both Houses (RHB) No. 2; and the other requesting the Senate to tackle that same resolution.


Yet Congress had the time during the pandemic to pass the franchise of the Bulacan Airport and Aerocity, which was not signed by President Duterte but was permitted to lapse into law. Equally railroaded is the bill that authorized an economic zone and a freeport adjacent to the aerocity, but was vetoed by Bongbong Marcos immediately after his inauguration as president.


Paradoxically, Zubiri said “it was still too early to discuss charter change (Cha-Cha) at this point of the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.” reacting to the resolution filed by Pampanga 3rd District Representative Aurelio Gonzales Jr. to amend the constitution.


Exposing his lack of political savvy and maturity, Zubiri said further he’d rather the chamber focus on bills aiming to address the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the economy as if it were achievable without deliberate and basic political reform.


Are health and economics mutually exclusive to social and political reforms?


This incoming leadership reveals to me a zero-sum, either-or mentality prevalent in the upper house. There are 24 senators and they think they can only tackle matters on the basis of a given order of business, and not depending on any creativity or multi-tasking on their part. Priority there, it seems is defined chronologically and not on the basis and urgency of national interest.

Not earthshaking option at all


Rightsizing the Senate has already been done before.

Actually, the framers of the 1973 Constitution effectively abolished the Senate when it provided for a unicameral semi-parliamentary form of government. It was a two-year work of 360 convention delegates, elected, repeat elected two years earlier in 1971.


The draft of that Constitution was presented by Convention President Diosdado Macapagal to President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. on December 1972 and was ratified by a plebiscite on January 1973.

Marcos Sr. used that unicameral form of government, with a National Assembly or Batasang Pambansa, together with a constituted Supreme Court, to temper his martial rule, in what was a constitutional authoritarianism up to January 1981, and not as an absolute dictatorship that the yellows want us to believe.


On the contrary, the gridlock that is now the 1987 Constitution was only drafted by 48 members of the Constitutional Commission, note commission, that were appointed by dictator Corazon Aquino under a revolutionary government in order to legitimize herself. Remember that Mrs. Aquino who lost the 1986 Snap Elections was only installed by a coup d’etat with the direct intervention of the United States in what they termed as “regime change”.


In order to complete this power grab, the Americans kidnapped President Marcos and his family from Malacanang, flew them to Clark Air Base and finally exiled them in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In a manner of speaking, it was an impostor president who returned the Senate.

Sandro’s Opposing View


Ilocos Norte Representative Sandro Marcos, however, has defended moves to amend the 1987 Constitution, “I don’t think charter change is divisive as people make it out to be.” 


“I think even people on the opposite side of the political spectrum will tell you that there are certain provisions in the Constitution that have just simply become outdated because of how old it is,” Marcos said in an exclusive interview with Daily Tribune’s Straight Talk.


So goes the old Tagalog equivalent of the English – If there is a will, there is a way. – “Kung gusto, may paraan, kung ayaw, and daming dahilan.”


Personally, I have had enough of this counter-productive senators. A bicameral legislature is not even part of our culture and traditions until the Americans imposed it on us during the Commonwealth and in our 1935 Constitution. Our 1899 Constitution passed by our revolutionary forefathers provided for a unicameral assembly.


There is also an expensive hubris these senators exhibit.

Hypocrisy


In 2020, the midst of the pandemic, Senators have padded their own budget for next year, increasing it by P2 billion, for a total budget of up to P9.5 billion. This means that taxpayers will spend nearly P396 million for each of the 24 senators, their staff and consultants, and Senate employees.


In addition, again in the midst of the pandemic, they passed P8.5 billion, to construct four 11-story towers, located at the plush 1.8-hectare Navy Village administered by the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA).


Unmindful of this hypocrisy, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, who is expected to retain chairmanship of the finance committee once the new Congress convenes in July, said “the Senate would have to pore over the 2023 budget proposal carefully to cut out any fat.”


Senators in the next Congress will try to trim the 2023 budget of all nonessential items—but not the new Senate building at Fort Bonifacio in Taguig that will cost the government a cool P10 billion when finished.

But when asked if that includes the new Senate building, Angara made an exception.


Finally, what makes the abolition of the Senate an urgent place to start is what more vested interests are we waiting to be served with it being infested by political dynasties – where two Villars, two Estradas and two Cayetanos are seated.

Let’s just do it!


Meanwhile, President Marcos Jr. is pushing for the rightsizing of the bureaucracy to make it more “lean, efficient, and responsive” to the needs of the people by weeding out redundant and inefficient government bodies and positions.


The initiative aims to rationalize the functions of government offices and pinpoint which among the 187 government agencies and GOCCs may be streamlined through merging, restructuring, or abolition.

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