MANILA, Philippines — Lawmakers on Sunday rejected the insistence of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) on introducing amendments to the Constitution for economic and political reforms amid the national struggle to contain the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.
“I don’t think this is the time to indulge in that,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III told the Inquirer.
“They should focus more on the safety and food security of the people,” he said, adding that he believed President Duterte did not order the DILG to pursue the push for constitutional amendments.
“This is not the right time to push for Charter change through [a] signature campaign, whether physical or online,” Cagayan Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the constitutional amendments committee of the House of Representatives, told the Inquirer in a text message.
“Also Charter change is a very contentious issue and we don’t want to divide our people on this matter at this time,” said Rodriguez, whose committee was deliberating on proposals to amend or revise the 1987 Constitution before the new coronavirus crisis forced lockdowns that halted movement in most of the country.
Until the appropriate time comes, the deliberations are suspended, Rodriguez said.
The Inquirer learned during the weekend that the DILG had not dropped its constitutional amendment initiative and, in fact, had directed its regional offices and supporters to continue gathering 2 million signatures over the next two months.
The signature drive has gone online to meet a July deadline in response to difficulties caused by the coronavirus crisis.
The DILG plans to present the 2 million signatures to both houses of Congress to show the lawmakers that it has the support in the regions in pushing for constitutional reforms.
Among the constitutional reforms the agency is pursuing are regional development, a larger share of national taxes for the regions, and more foreign investments in regional growth corridors.
Only 3 session weeks left
But Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr. said on Sunday that there was simply no time.
“With just three session weeks left before the Congress goes on its sine die adjournment, we in the House will do what needs to be done, which is to devote our time and attention to COVID-related measures,” Villafuerte said, referring to the severe respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
There was no immediate comment from the DILG on Sunday.
In a phone interview with the Inquirer on Saturday, Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said the DILG’s “principal priority” was dealing with the outbreak. All other programs of the department would be secondary, “but will still continue subject to limitations imposed by our current situation,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the DILG move was the “height of insensitivity,” pointing out that millions of Filipinos were going hungry after losing their jobs in the lockdowns.
He said the limited government resources should be set aside in dealing with the long-term economic effects of the health crisis and in providing for the people’s immediate needs.
“[Amending the Constitution] will only create distraction, division and unnecessary noise,” Drilon said.
“Our resources are depleting and the President said so … All agencies should exercise prudence and wise judgment in the use of public funds, most especially in this most trying time in our history as a nation,” he said.
Out of touch
Sen. Francis Pangilinan also opposed the DILG move, saying that public health and safety and economic recovery should be given priority over any political agenda.
“The current effort [of the DILG] is out of touch with current realities and is an insult to millions of our citizens who have lost their jobs, who are experiencing unprecedented hunger, and who continue to be threatened by the spread of this incurable disease,” Pangilinan said in a Viber message to the Inquirer.
“Instead of using government money and personnel [to collect] millions of signatures, the DILG should instead focus on mass testing and contact tracing of millions of our citizens,” he said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said those pushing for the amendment of the Constitution should let President Duterte enjoy a much-needed break from politics, apparently referring to proposals for a term extension for the President after his six-year office ends in 2022.
“They should give the President the retirement and rest that he well deserves and let him enjoy his family and his community in Davao City and vice versa,” Lacson said.
“This may be the worst timing for a signature campaign for the purpose of Charter change,” he said.
Lacson said the DILG should just bankroll community surveys on COVID-19 instead of using public funds for its “Cha-cha” signature drive.
“Cha-cha” or Charter change is a code name used by politicians for constitutional amendment.
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the DILG would do better helping to conduct mass testing for the new coronavirus than spending time and public resources in collecting signatures for Cha-cha.
“We should focus our priorities on addressing the needs of our people and in mapping out a viable, sustainable recovery plan before we entertain any ideas to amend the Constitution,” Villanueva said.
An opposition leader in the House, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, said the Duterte administration should drop its “obsession with Charter change.”
“The move for Cha-cha, especially now, is a waste of time, effort and the much-needed funds that should be rechanneled [to] fighting COVID-19,” Zarate said. INQ
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