By Rene Q. Bas, Editor in Chief
The Manila Times
As long as the discussion is confined to politics in purely materialistic, social science terms, stop blaming President Arroyo for the sudden disappearance of the political balance of power among the three branches of government.
She and her allies—including those honorable justices of the Supreme Court who voted to exalt her and Secretary Romulo Neri’s executive privilege at the expense of the Senate’s right to conduct an investigation of a government deal tainted with bribery and overpricing attempts—have only been taking advantage of rules, laws and Constitutional provisions that give the Philippine presidency huge powers over the other two branches of government and the entire width and breadth of the executive department.
Yes, that situation chokes our republican democracy, which can thrive for the common good only when the checks and balances dynamic between the executive, the legislative and the judicial departments work.
But don’t say it is GMA’s fault. The means for her to exercise overarching control over the Congress, the treasury, the local governments, the military and the police—and to benefit from the decisions of the High Court—were all given to her by the system, by laws and by our culture.
As analyst Juan T. Gatbonton writes (“See Democratizing our imperial presidency”), the Philippine presidency “has been accumulating near-monarchic majesty.”
Lack of accountability
The Filipino president does not have to behave with a thought to being accountable to anybody (although many pages of the law books and the Constitution are about accountability) as long as he has a massive majority in Congress to ensure surviving any impeachment effort.
The Philippine president can function completely without regard to the fear of being held accountable to anybody—if he holds the House majority. For impeachment by the House is the only way to hold him liable and, after conviction in the Senate acting as an impeachment court, mete out his punishment which is dismissal from the presidency.
Otherwise, there is no way to make a Philippine president answer to any accusation of misbehavior, graft and corruption and other crimes. (See “Freed from accountability, a one-term president has vast powers over bureaucracy and the treasury.”)
This lack of accountability comes from the removal of that basic tool of the citizenry to deny re-election to a bad president. Our Constitution’s “no re-election” rule deprives citizens of the power to check an incumbent president, short of a people-power uprising.
Only through free, fair—and frequent—elections can citizens retain final control over the public agenda.
Influence on the courts
The Philippine president’s influence over the courts, including the Supreme Court itself, comes both from our culture’s deference to the virtue of utang-na-loob and the Constitution’s granting the presidency the power to appoint High Court justices without these having to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.
As a result of the SC’s 9-6 vote in favor of the Palace on the Neri v. Senate Committee on Accountability case, Chief Justice Reynato Puno has been reported to now be worrying that by next year all but two of the 15 justices would be President Arroyo’s appointees. The only exceptions by then would only be Chief Justice Puno himself, an appointee of President Fidel V. Ramos, and Justice Antonio Carpio, an appointee of President Joseph Estrada.
Power over brueaucracy
The Philippine president has power to appoint bureaucrats down to assistant-director level, as well as officers of public corporations. Recently retired Civil Service Commissioner Karina David described how the Philippine president can politicize what should be an apolitical government bureaucracy by being the godfather of up to 10,000 or about half of the key government positions. Even the World Bank has shaken its head over the power of the president of the civil service.
Power of the budget secretary
Since the Marcos era, the president has had the power to realign the budget. Present laws have allowed that practice to continue, which has emasculated the Congress’ so-called power of the purse.
Our Senior Reporter Efren Danao explains.
“Not one but two laws of martial law vintage are gnawing away at the supposedly inherent power of Congress to appropriate. Besides Presidential Decree 1177 that ostensibly seeks to reform the budget process, another Marcos-era issuance, PD 1597, contributes to the continuing erosion of Congress’ power of the purse.
“PD 1177 grants Malacañang the power to cut and realign items in the executive budget and provides for the automatic appropriation of debt services. With this power, the annual budget ceases to look like the one passed by Congress after so much hard work. Malacañang can refuse to release funds for projects it did not like, even if these are favored by congressmen or senators. With its automatic appropriation, the payment of debts often went higher than the amount pegged in the budget.
“PD 1597, on the other hand, gives the President the authority to grant government employees allowances, honoraria and other fringe benefits. Malacañang has interpreted PD 1597 to mean that it can increase the salaries of those in government even without legislation.
“In March 2007, President Arroyo issued Administrative Order 144 granting government employees a 10-percent hike in pay and a P1,000 increase in the monthly allowances for soldiers and policemen. It is noteworthy that before she issued the EO, the 2007 national budget pending before a bicameral committee had also recommended the same increase in pay and allowances. The EO appropriated P10.3 billion for the pay and allowances hike for 2007.
“Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. defended the legality of AO 144, saying it is authorized under PD 1597.
“President Arroyo is not the first president after Marcos to invoke PD 1597. President Fidel V. Ramos invoked it to increase the monthly allowance of those in government by P500, and by President Joseph Estrada in 1999 to increase the subsistence allowance for uniformed personnel.”
Power over LGUs
The Philippine president is not only the final chief of every executive department official of the land. Presidential supervision and control of governors, mayors and barangay chiefs is through the Secretary of the Interior and Local Governments.
But the president of this country also has the power to withhold the money all LGUs need for their operation—especially the poor provinces and towns.
Political power is exercised in this case not from the barrel of a gun but through the DBM and the banks. LGUs not friendly or outrightly opposed to the politics of the occupant of Malacañang can be deprived of their rightful share of the Internal Revenue Allocation.
Pimentel on presidency
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. is the “father of the Local Government Code.”
Our columnist Julius Fortuna recorded Pimentel’s recent discourse on the presidency. He had just returned in February from Mexico attending a conference on ideal government structures for Third World countries when Pimentel gave these insights.
“In our experience, weak political parties, weak judicial structures and weak legislatures have all contributed to the emerging phenomenon of an imperial presidency. This characterization of the presidency as imperial means that in the context of the political structure now obtaining, the President overwhelms the other two co-equal branches, the legislature and the judiciary.
“Weak political parties fail to act as a sieve against the surfacing of mediocre personalities contending for the presidency. Instead of insuring that only the best and the brightest should have the opportunity to serve as the president of the nation, they cater to the passions of the day and abet the election of the person who can best deliver patronage benefits.
“The weak parties also produce weak members of the legislature who tend to gratify the base wishes of their constituents rather than work for the good of the nation.
“Negatively, the cumulative effect of the weaknesses adverted to makes the president not only primus inter pares among the supposedly co-equal branches of government but the dominant force in the entire political spectrum of the country.
“And positively, the constitutional power of appointment the president has over the major functionaries of government from the Cabinet ministers or secretaries as we call them back home to the ambassadors, to the officials of constitutional bodies like the Ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights, to military officers from the rank of colonel to the top police officers and to the directors of government-owned corporations makes him or her a superpower in the political firmament of the nation.
“On paper, the legislature is vested with the power to check presidential appointments but because of the weaknesses earlier adverted to by and large the president gets to appoint his or her personal supporters to choice positions in the political arm of the government or even to judicial seats.
“Because the president is the dominant force in the nation’s political spectrum, he or she determines which bloc or coalition of blocs becomes the majority party in the legislature. Whoever is president, in fact, becomes a magnet that draws lawmakers from whatever party to his or her political party or coalition which thus becomes the majority of the ruling party.
“The fact that the president has the power to create the majority in the legislature is bolstered mainly by his or her power over the purse. This is true even if under our Constitution, it is the legislature that enacts a national budget. The money, thus, appropriated may, however, only be disbursed by authority of the president. In our case now as opposition members of the Senate, we find the releases of funds for projects that we recommend difficult to come by. It was not so before the present administration.
“The President is the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces of our country and whenever it becomes necessary, he or she may call out the armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.
“In the recent past, the president had called out the armed forces to the capital city of Manila ostensibly to suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion even if actually nonexistent. And when concerned citizens contest such calls, the judiciary felt reluctant to censure her move especially when at the time of the decision was forthcoming, the soldiers were made to return to the barracks.
“The President has full powers to restructure the executive department that under the Constitution is under her “control and supervision.” In general, that means that she may reassign or reduce the personnel of the various cabinet departments and realign their budgets. The incumbent has even tinkered with the legal functions of certain offices attached to certain departments by transferring them to other offices.
“The tendency, however, in the country today is for the delivery especially of major services to be done only upon orders of the President and her underlings in the Cabinet who hold office in Manila.
“I suppose that the problems we face in the country today are not merely due to the presidential form of government. It has also to do with the kind of people that we elect to be our leaders. Somebody has said that a people deserve the government that they elect.”