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House prioritizes economic ‘Cha-cha’

Economic managers expect Philippine gross domestic product to have contracted by 8.5-9.5% last year. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

HOUSE SPEAKER Lord Allan Q. Velasco on Sunday said there is an urgent need to amend the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution to help the Philippine economy recover from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

In a statement, Mr. Velasco said the Committee on Constitutional Amendments will open deliberations this week on the proposed Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2, which seeks to change the economic provisions of the 33-year-old Charter.

“When I filed RBH 2 in July 2019, the Philippines was poised to become one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The World Bank gave the country a projection of 6.6% GDP growth in the years 2020 and 2021. No one could have predicted the onset of a global pandemic, along with the devastation it has brought upon the economies around the world,” he said.

The World Bank projected the Philippine economy to have shrank by 8.1% in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic, but expects it to grow by 5.9% this year. Economic managers expect gross domestic product (GDP) to have contracted by 8.5-9.5% last year.

RBH No. 2 seeks to insert the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” to several sections of the Constitution, namely on national patrimony and economy; education, science, technology, arts, culture and sports; and general provisions on media and advertising.

“The addition of this phrase will allow Congress to enact laws to free up the economy to foreign investors, or maintain the status quo. Foreign investment plays a crucial role in the Philippine economy by supporting domestic jobs and the creation of physical and knowledge capital across a range of industries. The need to attract foreign capital is critical to support our economy’s recovery from COVID-19,” Mr. Velasco said.

The addition of the phrase “will give the Congress the flexibility and leeway to amend those provisions to conform with present economic and technological conditions,” Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Alfredo A. Garbin, Jr., the chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Amendments, told BusinessWorld in a Viber message on Sunday.

Mr. Garbin said the business sector has been pushing for amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution for the last three Congresses.

Mr. Garbin provided reporters with a copy of a matrix showing the position of the American Chamber of Commerce Philippines, Inc. (AmCham), Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines (JFC), Makati Business Club (MBC), Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), Philippine Mining and Exploration Association (PMEA), among others, on specific amendments to the Constitution.

The Constitution bars foreign investors from owning more than 40% of certain industries. Business groups said the provisions on exploration of natural resources, land ownership and restrictions on foreign ownership in public utilities, mass media and educational institutions should be amended, adding that “specific restrictions” should be left to the legislature.

“Even though the Philippines has experienced an increase in foreign investments in recent years, it still pales in comparison with its more affluent neighbors in this regard,” AmCham said in its position paper.

The group, however, said it “takes the position that there’s no need to allow foreign ownership of lands” as extending the years for leasing lands “may already suffice for purposes of investments.”

The Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF) also expressed support for Charter change but only to amend the economic provisions.

“Enabling Congress to amend the restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution will send a positive signal to investors and fuel the economy’s transition to an investment-led growth… We caution that amendments to the Constitution be confined to the economic provisions only. This will lessen the risk of political controversy and division that could derail the speedy passage of these much-needed amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution,” the FEF said in a statement on Sunday.

Constitutional expert and lawyer Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña, meanwhile, said convening as a constituent assembly to amend the Charter would split the lawmakers’ time and focus between their regular duties in the Congress and their “new task of proposing revisions to the Charter.”

The Charter change may also not push through because the “election season is about to begin,” he said.

“Liberalizing the economy in a world that is so unstable right now is the most reckless thing to do. It’s an ideological solution without an empirical basis at this time when everyone is seeking to protect their domestic economies and companies,” Mr. La Viña said.

The House committee is expected to finish its deliberations before the end of 2021, in time for a plebiscite coinciding with the 2022 national elections, Mr. Velasco said.

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