Charter change has once again reared its head. The objective: To change our form of government from a centralized, unitary system to federalism. The change would mean sharing of power between two levels of government – a central government and regional ones – both equal to each other.
Instead of solving problems, the changes can bring about greater woes, according to many authorities on the Constitution. Under federalism, wealth disparity would grow between the regional haves and have nots. As well, political dynasties would flourish as local warlords raise personal armies to perpetuate their hold, greatly weakening central authority in the process and possibly leading to national dysfunction. Yet, President Rodrigo Duterte and his camp are intent on bringing in the changes. Cha-Cha proponents say there is public clamor for it.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. All the social surveys show that since 2016, no more than 2 to 4 percent of survey respondents consider changing the Constitution as urgent. The vast majority of our people have not even read the 1987 Constitution or know very little about it. Neither are they aware, nor do they care, what the arguments for federalism are all about.
The most urgent national concerns since the 1986 post-Edsa Cory Aquino administration have consistently been controlling inflation or lowering the cost of basic necessities, improving or increasing workers’ pay, creating more jobs, fighting criminality, and fighting graft and corruption in government. What we need are reforms, not a revamp of the Constitution.
We do not need charter change or a new form of government to deliver public services or to effect reforms. We need only to implement effectively and efficiently the relevant provisions of our present Constitution for strong local autonomy and decentralization. If more are still needed, Congress needs only to amend the 1991 Local Government Code.
For example, it can be amended to increase the local governments’ share in the internal revenue allotment and devolve the health and education boards to improve the delivery of social services. Yet, the House of Representatives is pushing so hard for charter change, they are railroading the process to make it happen before the 2019 elections. One can surmise that this haste is spurred by the fact that 30 percent (88 out of 297) of congressmen are in their last term of office and cannot be re-elected.
There are various positions papers on federalism, principally from the University of the Philippines Department of Political Science, which have been submitted to Congress. Others that I use as references for this column include lectures of former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Sen. Franklin Drilon and Prof. Gene Papila at the 15th annual Jaime V. Ongpin lecture.
From these, I culled the most important justifications expressing support for a shift to federalism and, in laymen’s language, summarized arguments why instead of solving problems, federalism will create even bigger headaches. This is not meant to be an exhaustive argument. I just picked what, to me, are the important points.
1. Proponents argue that federalism would be most suitable to the Philippines as an archipelagic and multilinguistic country but provide no proof that it will work better than our present system. On the contrary, federalism does not fit into our history, culture, character, traditions, beliefs, hopes, aspirations and longings, training and experiences and even our idiosyncrasies and peculiarities.
The best fitted for these are the unitary system, which has proven itself to be so. We are so diverse that a central government is needed to ensure greater cooperation and synergy instead of fostering conflict due to unnecessary competition.
2. Federalism could increase inequality: The poorer regions or states may become dependent on fiscal transfers, causing resentment on the part of the richer states which contribute more. In the Philippines, there can be no equitable distribution of natural wealth or resources because these are not evenly distributed geographically. Some regions would be much poorer from the start, they understandably need more federal support or subsidies.
3. Federalism will enable regions to retain locally generated income, plan and manage their own affairs without national interference. Government services are funded by taxes collected. Under federalism, poorer states will simply have less to give, be it housing, health care, education and other benefits. The poor suffers.
Have Cha-Cha proponents worked out a blueprint that will ensure equity in salaries and benefits of government employees across the different states?
Richer states will entice better qualified workers with higher pay. How can we strengthen civil service and bureaucracies at different levels to fulfill their mandates without political interference from local or state elites?
Federalism will also institutionalize perpetual dependency on federal subsidies, causing greater divisions among the productive and the non-productive regions. This may lead to conflict generated by divided loyalties – to the federal versus state governments.
Inevitably, people will pay more taxes to support the federal bureaucracy. In prosperous Europe and North America, citizens are burdened by dual taxes to the federal and state governments.
4. Federalism is expected to bring political stability, spur economic development, unshackle the localities, and bring government closer to the people. But it is assumed that federalism will deliver the public goods more efficiently – for high-income regions or states, perhaps, but it is disastrous for the poorer ones.
In fact, full devolution of public services across the board could lead to gross disparities in the provision and the quality of public services from one state to another, to the detriment of the affected public. Moreover, the horribly enlarged and bloated bureaucracy will further tax the overburdened taxpayers – supporting both the federal and the state governments.
5. Federalism supposedly creates a system of checks and balances. On the contrary, the states or regions may resent reforms emanating from the federal government.
The government now, with a central authority and a strong presidency, experience disasters caused by political dynasties and warlords who maintain private armies to ensure perpetuation of power.
Federalism will create more feudal societies where political families with their private armies will grow and prosper, a sure threat to democracy.
When natural disasters strike, states will have difficulty coordinating emergency intervention effectively from the federal government. Federalism will discourage greater coordination and sharing. Above all, how do we guard against gerrymandering and ensure that rationality prevails over vested parochial interests?
In our culture of corruption, when push comes to shove, basic human nature will see that personal interests transcend public obligations.
Obviously, creating a new territorial and political subdivision complete with its own bureaucracy and legislative body will entail additional operating costs, new infrastructure, personnel. This necessitates huge capital outlay and bloated budgets. We have much more important priorities and pressing problems at this point – such as hunger, illiteracy, and breakdown of law and order – where that huge budget will be more useful.
Sadly, the pitfalls are simply too big and disastrous. Abolition of the important Senate function as fiscalizer will enable the House to pass excessive appropriations acts and other forms of self-serving legislation detrimental to the interest of the nation. The proposals I’ve seen so far reduces the Senate to merely ceremonial functions. The loss of the checks and balance mandate provided by a fully participative Senate will spell chaos and disaster.
The advantages of this new system of governance has never been tried or tested in the Philippines. Even existing federal states have not proven that their system is superior to the centralized unitary system. Those pushing for federalism are depending on faith alone and not on a tried and proven formula.
I would rather work on improving and reforming something that we already know rather than court disaster for something that we are unfamiliar with. In Filipino we say, “Hindi ‘yan mainit na kanin na ‘pag isinubo ay pwedeng iluwa ‘pag napaso (It is not like rice that we can spit out if we get burned).”
I repeat, what we need are reforms and efficient implementation of existing laws, not a revamp of the Constitution. Imperfections pointed out by the House can easily be addressed through legislation and other mode of amendments rather than an overhaul of our Constitution.
Those who will draft the Constitution face the challenge of avoiding, not perpetuating, in a new federal set-up the abuse and monopoly of power of a few political clans and elites.