RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Towards a federal republic (3)

Options for federalism

Federalism requires a fundamental reallocation of powers and functions. In the end, we must design it according to the evidence available on what will work best for our common interest. In this article, the third of a four part series on constitutional change and federalism, I suggest some directions even as I am open to how to other ideas.

What is a federal form of government? Federalism is a system where government authority is exercised on three levels: the national (or the federal), the regional (or state), and local. Each is assigned specific and distinct functions. Each state or region exercises individual autonomy with powers assigned by the Charter. In essence, federalism aims for the distribution of powers and resources between the federal government and the states. Specifically, the federal government usually have jurisdiction over foreign affairs, armed forces, currency, national finance, national taxation, customs and federal justice (although for the Philippines, I would propose a single national legal system with some space for Shariah and indigenous customary law). The federal government will also be responsible for the stability of the currency through an independent federal central bank and the collection of personal income taxes. Other taxing powers like sales and business taxes which are vested in the states. Finally, the federal government will also help ensure the balanced and equitable development of the whole country and the welfare of all citizens.

Other areas of governance involving social and economic development will be placed in the hands of the states/regions, like health, housing, agriculture, trade and commerce, natural resources, power, transportation and communications, public works, and the police. The states/regions and their component local government units will be responsible for economic planning and development. Basic infrastructure like roads, railways, hospitals, airports, schools, and harbors are each state’s responsibility.

Under a federal setup, the Philippines can be reconstituted into any appropriate number of states or other regional entities, each one having its own constitution. This will allow each state to address its peculiar and particular condition, but all functions flow from the basic framework defined in a federal constitution. One proposal is to make the existing administrative regions as the country’s states. The Citizen’s Movement for a Federal Philippines proposes the creation of 11 states, while Gaudioso Sosmena Jr. proposes the creation of seven states. Another proposal made by former Senator Pimentel is to consolidate the existing regions into ten states with Metro Manila as a Special Administrative Region. Each state will have a governor, a state assembly and state high courts and lower courts.

In our present centralized structure of government, much of the power emanates from one source, the central government. The administration of government rests on this central authority and is cascaded to local government units with the assistance of the departments and agencies of the executive branch. The flow of government mostly follows a single line from the national government to the regional units then to the local governments.

As for the exact form, my current view is aligned with that of President Duterte – Federalism with a French style parliament where we will still have a strong President responsible for foreign affairs and for defense. That will maintain unity of the islands before external threats. I am also in favor of a regional senate that can be designed to counter the influence of the richest and most populated states/region.

Proponents of federalism believe that it is the answer to the age-old problems of inequitable distribution of wealth, the slow pace of development in the countryside, and the conflict situation in Mindanao. It is argued that federalism will bring about peace and unity in ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. It will hasten the country’s development. Since planning and policy-decision making will be given to the states, there will be less bureaucratic obstacles to the implementation of economic programs and projects. There will also be inter-state and regional competition in attracting domestic and foreign investments and industries. Resources will be distributed better among the provinces/regions since government revenues will be devolved.

Critics contend that the shift to a federal structure entails another tier of public financial costs. It would require additional appropriations for the establishment of the state governments, courts and legislatures. Considering the prevalence of the patronage system, there is a possibility that political clans will strengthen their foothold in the regions and perpetuate their political dynasties. The states may just turn into feudal lands of the rich and the powerful. It may also result into “turfing” among the political and economic elites.

Given the varying degrees of development in the different regions, the poorer regions may be further left behind in development. This will cause greater migration to richer regions which will aggravate conditions in regions where social ills are already prevalent. The economic preparedness of the national government, the regional groupings, and the local governments is also another issue. Creating the mechanism that will redistribute wealth among regions will be another challenge. One prominent constitutionalist says that federalism might only promote regionalism and divide the country instead of uniting it. The country may not be prepared to face the economic conundrum of the reallocation of resources of government. Emigration, migration and capital flow patterns might even go out of control.

With President Duterte pushing for a shift to federalism, we can expect a renewed impetus towards charter change and the restructuring of government to suit his federalist agenda. Presently, there seems to be no problem given his strong support in Congress and the enthusiastic backing by the majority of the population.

As argued in the second of this series of articles, the best approach for constitutional change is by convening a constitutional convention. In recent days, because of the cost, it has been suggested that a constituent assembly will be the mode taken. I think that is very risky.

What’s needed to change the constitution is 3/4 vote of each chamber of Congress voting separately. For sure, we will not be able to pass reforms that would reduce the influence of political dynasties given the current composition of both Houses. A 3/4 vote in the Senate is also not an assured thing. I doubt for example if the Senate would agree to the abolition of a Senate that is nationally elected. I trust Senator Koko Pimentel’s leadership and that he will be able to steer the Senate to a good conclusion. But definitely it will be tough. Moreover, convening Congress into a constituent assembly will also be a huge distraction to the legislative work of both Houses.

As for the cost of a constitutional convention, I echo the words of my Dean at the Ateneo School of Government, Dr. Ronald Mendoza who posted in Facebook this comment: “How ironic that many of us welcomed Federalism precisely to correct the trust and accountability issues of some of those who will now try to craft Federalism itself. Breaking out of this impasse — characterized by the dynasties, the lack of local accountability, the high dependence of LGUs to the central government, the opportunism of “imperial Manila”, the poor fit of some overly-centralized public policies, the imbalanced growth and growing inequality, and the wild swings in policy and lack of long-term policy consistency and coherence — aren’t these the main motivations why many of us are interested to explore Federalism in the first place? Spending PhP5 billion for a ConCon might be the best investment this country ever made.”
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña is a human rights and environmental lawyer from Cagayan de Oro City. He was a member of the Government of the Philippines Peace Panel that negotiated with the MILF from January-June 2010. He teaches Constitutional Law at the Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City and at the Ateneo School of Government at the Ateneo de Manila University where he used to be Dean. He can be reached atTonylavs@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook: tlavina@yahoo.com and on Twitter: tonylavs.)