People’s Initiative for ABS-CBN; to do or not to do

After the House Committee on Legislative Franchise (The “Committee”) has overwhelmingly voted to deny ABS-CBN’s application for a new or renewal of its legislative franchise to operate a mass media TV station, which recently expired last May 2020, with all objections and ton of justifications for denial proffered by the opposing congressmen;  some members of the legal profession has immediately come out with the proposal that a direct People’s Initiative can be resorted to involve the public in general to sign up a petition for the masses themselves to pass and approve a law or enactment that would grant the network the very franchise that it was denied  by the Committee.

At least three lawyers, who are experts in their own right, have proposed aforesaid scheme which has recently come up in social media. In support, they cited a 1989 law – RA No. 6739, or otherwise known as “AN ACT PROVIDING FOR A SYSTEM OF INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM…..”. 

Said law, which I shall refer as the People’s Initiative Law or “PI” for short, provides for the power of the People to, among others, “propose and enact legislations through an election called for the purpose”. This system, which is one among three (3) types, is an initiative on statutes or law which refers to a petition proposing to enact a national legislation (Sec. 3, Art 1, RA No. 6739).

This system of PI, which is new under the 1987 Constitution, has been put to the test in 2014 during the time of the Aquino Administration (2010-2016) at the height of the controversies  on the congressional  Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), popularly known as the infamous “Pork Barrel”,  and   the equally infamous Development Assistance Program (DAP). The Aquino Government tried to undermine the PI, which eventually started to fizzle out while the people await for the decision of the Supreme Court on said PDAF and DAP cases. And when it was finally decided that the latter practices are unconstitutional, the PI eventually lost its steam and died.

On this current attempt to use this system, the proposal to enact a law directly by the masses by a vote of 10% and 3% of the total number of registered voters throughout the country and by each legislative district, respectively, to grant ABS-CBN, a private business entity; would be quite interesting as it is a case of first impression to promote a private interest as opposed to the usual public purpose of every law.

The People’s Initiative Law has its roots under the 1987 Constitution. As I said, it is new and was never in the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions.   

Under Article XVII, Section 2 of the 1987, it states: “Amendments to this Constitution may likewise be directly proposed by the people through initiative upon a petition of at least twelve per centum of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered votes therein. No amendment under this section shall be authorized within five years following the ratification of this Constitution nor oftener than once every five years thereafter.

“The Congress shall provide for the implementation of the exercise of this right”.

Article VI, Section 32 is more specific, which states that “(t)he Congress shall, as early as possible, provide for a system of initiative and referendum, and the exceptions therefrom, whereby the people can directly propose and enact laws or approve or reject any act or law or part thereof passed by the Congress or local legislative body after the registration of a petition therefor signed by at least ten per centum of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three per centum of the registered voters thereof”

It is from the above constitutional provisions that People’s Initiative Law came into effect that is now being proposed as the people’s avenue to grant ABS-CBN its desired franchise.

With the above factual milieu, I know stake my position that such a proposal will not lie.

First, Article 6, Section 24 of the Constitution under the title “Legislative Department” in no uncertain terms says that: “All appropriation, revenue or tariff bills, bills authorizing increase of the public debt, bills of local application, and private bills shall originate exclusively in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments.

In the Philippines, there is a dearth of legal literature on the definition or academic discussion on what a Private Bill is.  Hence, we take our bearing from the United States where the vast majority of our jurisprudence, especially in Constitutional law, was culled.          

The Black’s Law legal dictionary defines  a Private Bill as one which have for its objective more particular or private interest as distinguished from such are as for the benefit of the whole community, which are hence termed as “Public Bills” (Black Law, 2nd Ed., Page 134).

Some common example in the U.S. on the kinds of Private Bills that are still introduced include grants of citizenship to individuals who are otherwise ineligible for normal visa processing; alleviation of tax liabilities; armed services decorations and veteran benefits (Wikipedia; Private Bill).

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, there are two types of Private Act. The first are acts for the benefit of individuals (known as private or personal acts) which have historically often dealt with divorces or granting British nationality to foreigners, but in modern times are generally limited to authorizing marriages which would otherwise not be legal. 

The second type are Acts for the benefit of organizations, or authorizing major projects such as railways or canals, or granting extra powers to local authorities (known as local acts) (Id; Wikipedia)

In short, since the proposed People’s Initiative to enact and grant ABS-CBN a franchise law to again operate its TV Network for business and private gain, there is no doubt that such move would be tantamount to the passage of a Private Bill, which under Art. 6, Section 24 of the Constitution can only exclusively originate from the House of Representatives; and therefore beyond the ambit of the People Initiative Law.

Second, the proposed People’s Initiative on ABS-CBN being in the nature of a Private Bill cannot prosper under said process as it will entail expenses on tax payer’s money as huge as a regular national election. A budget for such process will require appropriations. The next national budget process will be for the year 2021 and expenditures will have to be contained in the General Appropriations Act (GAA), which under the same Art. 6, Section 24, “(A)ll appropriation …. Shall originate exclusively in the House of Representatives”.

The long and short of it, it would still be Congress through the House that shall give its go signal whether to fund the proposed measure to benefit ABS CBN.         

 Hence, the high impracticality of pursuing the measure of using people’s money to benefit a private enterprise. 

While we lament and sympathize with the direct and indirect employees who will lose, or likely lose, their jobs; it is evident that ABS-CBN have already provided for the appropriate separation/retirement package for them.

The story of ABS-CBN may not be the end. But as in every episode in a multi-plot TV program, it always ends with the phrase “To be Continued”. /Atty. Paul Yusi

Atty. Paul Yusi is former State Solicitor, former in-house Corporate and Litigation Counsel, former Banker, former Country Chair of American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS), a member and former Vice President of the Metro Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc.(MACCII), and a member of Pampanga Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He is currently managing his own firm which is engaged in Protection and Risks Management. — Editor

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