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Feb 13

The Long View: Obnoxious reality

Obnoxious reality
By Manuel L. Quezon III

YESTERDAY’S HEADLINES SAID THE PALACE blinked. How so? Supposedly because Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Joaquin Lagonera verbally assured Sen. Richard Gordon that come Monday (today), officials from the executive department will go back to testifying in the budget hearings of the Senate.

In reality, however, the Palace did not blink; it won a point. And it emphasized-not just maintained and reasserted-its position on Executive Order No. 464, which requires any and all officials within the ambit of the executive department to secure permission from the President before appearing before Congress. In other words, the officials appearing before the Senate do so on the sufferance of the President, and certainly not because of a Senate’s summons issued pursuant to its right to hear testimony from them.

Partisans, not only of the President but also of what can only be called “parliamentarism with Lakas-CMD characteristics” that is, a one-party dictatorship disguised as Charter change-portray the senators as interested only in keeping their jobs, while studiously ignoring the principle of checks and balances that is the cornerstone of a genuine republican government. These partisans, engaged in an insurgency whose aim is to eliminate the Senate, go as far as to heap contempt on the Senate, painting it as an office composed of individuals with meaningless mandates. Having been elected at large-that is, by a national electorate-the senators, these partisans say, are in reality answerable to no one, especially so since their constituencies are so vast. But then, based on the same logic, the same can be said of the President of the Philippines: she is answerable to no one. This is an inconvenient point to raise, because it is precisely what is taking place right now-though the lingering doubts about her legitimacy actually indicate a worse state of affairs: not having been elected by everyone, she insists on being accountable to no one, neither to the public nor to her party.

Therefore, even if one buys the seductive but silly reasoning of the enemies of the Senate, the fight between the President and the Senate boils down to this: a President with a doubtful mandate versus a Senate whose members have the same constituency (the national electorate) as she does, but with a more iron-clad mandate than she possesses. Furthermore, senators belong to an institution designed precisely to temper the bootlicking tendencies of the House of Representatives, and the desire of weak presidents to dominate institutions that get in their way. I say weak presidents because strong presidents know how to get the cooperation of Congress without attempting to institutionalize a dictatorship.

It is in the nature of chief executives to try to corral all power and authority for themselves, just as it is in the nature of legislators to reduce everything to haggling over the terms of surrender. That is why it is exceedingly dangerous and unhealthy to put together both the executive and legislative functions in the hands of a single person or entity. And while those with a fetish for efficiency would prefer a totalitarian government, it is still in the interest of democracy to sacrifice efficiency for a built-in mechanism that will prevent one institution from dominating all others.

In 1948-49, President Elpidio Quirino, frustrated with Congress’ uncooperative attitude toward him, seized upon the theory that emergency powers granted to the President of the Philippines on the eve of World War II, were still his to use, though the war had ended in 1945. Whenever Congress passed a law not to his liking, he would veto the law and issue an executive order precisely on the same subject. When Congress refused to pass a budget, he issued an EO that served as the General Appropriations Act. Ultimately, the issue became intertwined with the preparations for the 1949 presidential elections, and for the first time, an attempt to impeach a president was made (it failed). The Supreme Court stepped in (twice!) and ruled that Quirino could not exercise emergency powers as the period of emergency had quite clearly come to an end. The intervention of the Supreme Court was part of the constitutional mechanism of checks and balances.

Unlike the Supreme Court of the past-which ruled in the Quirino-era Emergency Powers cases that the “transcendental importance to the public of these cases demands that they be settled promptly and definitely, brushing aside, if we must, technicalities of procedure” today’s Supreme Court is certainly taking its time, despite having been freed from the shackles of what used to be called “political” cases that are thus beyond its jurisdiction. The present Constitution gives the Supreme Court the authority to address issues involving grave abuse of discretion. The assertion by the President of the Philippines on the writ of her authority (extending as far as to impede the functions of Congress) surely presents grounds for judicial intervention. While the Supreme Court has set oral arguments on EO 464 for the end of this month, it doesn’t mean the case questioning the order will be resolved soon.

Which means an obnoxious state of affairs-in which the President has effectively clipped Congress’ power of the purse by engineering the reenactment of last year’s budget-continues. Does this mean the Supreme Court is doing a Pontius Pilate, neither striking down the President’s order nor addressing an unhappy state of affairs? You be the judge.

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