Con-ass for federalism? | Inquirer Opinion

The body politic has long been ailing. While recent years have brought some relief, its tolerance for pain has weakened, its anguish sharpened by the evidence of other polities enjoying better health and the claims of current political doctors that they have the single, surefire remedy—federalism—to end its suffering.

The shift in political structure is major surgery. What benefits will federalism bring, and by what means will they materialize? Which limbs or organs will the surgeons amputate? What foreign elements will they implant?  How much will the operation cost? How long is the expected period of convalescence? The doctors prescribing the cure have not yet given a comprehensive explanation of the process to the patient.

The lack of a credible, cost-benefit analysis for the change to federalism is understandable, since its detailed framework remains undefined. The devil is in the details. While a legitimate and viable model, the benefits of its adoption is theoretical. Its success will depend on the patient’s preexisting condition and the operating surgeons’ expertise.

Federalism, for instance, seeks to address the disparity in regional development and prosperity. The taxes extracted by the national government from the regions and the often tardy and inequitable flowback of budgetary resources to local government units present only one source of disparity.  It also stems from the difference in God-given resource endowments among LGUs and the stewardship practiced by their respective political leaders, many of them during decades of dynastic rule. Political restructuring will not magically give poor, badly governed LGUs more natural resources or better leaders.

Research has demonstrated that even if they retained all the 2015 revenues they raised, 88 of 93 provinces (95 percent), 87 of 152 cities (57 percent), and 1,937 of 2,044 municipalities (95 percent) could not support even half of their operating costs.  National-government efforts to improve the fiscal position of the poor LGUs through the 1992 Local Government Code have not succeeded. Success can come only if the richer LGUs, whose control over their resources federalism will reinforce, voluntarily agree to share their wealth. Changing systems will not necessarily displace current LGU leaders or their political priorities.

The benefits of the change are hypothetical, but the higher cost of running a federal system is inevitable.  Education Secretary Leonor Briones, once the national treasurer, has expressed doubts that the government can sustain these costs.

The experience of other countries gives us more understanding also about the risks of undertaking a systems overhaul. The first risk is the constitutional change process itself, which erases anything good in the old constitution and leaves a blank slate on which anything can be inscribed. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, and former chief justice Artemio Panganiban have both sounded this warning, which has led other analysts to prefer the piecemeal amendment of the Constitution, focusing only on provisions that have become dysfunctional.

This fear also reinforces the argument that an elected constitutional convention (Con-con) should craft a new constitution rather than legislators convened as a constituent assembly (Con-ass). Even if we naively assume that serving congressmen will robustly resist the temptation to promote personal interests, they would likely be more prone to focus on immediate political concerns. A Con-con would allow for a more diverse, deliberative body that will have a better chance to take a longer-term, more inclusive perspective to produce a constitution to which unborn generations of Filipinos will be subject. Is this not worth the investment in a Con-con?

Con-ass advocates assure us that our fears are unfounded. What is our basis for trusting this assurance?  The benefits they promise are conditional and they cannot yet compute the costs and risks of their project. But these political doctors are supremely sure of three things: that they have perfectly diagnosed the disease; that the surgery they propose is the necessary treatment; that they must perform the operation themselves. This excess of confidence that the Greeks called hubris must cause us concern.

Prudence dictates that anyone contemplating major surgery seek a second and third opinion: to review the soundness of the diagnosis; assess the aptness of the proposed cure; and evaluate the surgeons’ integrity and skill. This precaution comes especially with the possibility that the doctors may profit from the surgery.

We can still hope that the Senate can offer a second opinion.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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