The Explainer: SONA


Zoning in on the SONA


The State of the Nation Address has been a steady feature of the Philippine presidency since 1936, when the first one was delivered. In a sense, then, this year marks the 70th anniversary of this ritual. But what is the State of the Nation Address? Why is it delivered every year?

Like every organization, our government has an official year. However, unlike our regular, calendar, year, the official government year begins in June. That’s because the terms of officials begins a little over a month after election day, which occurs in May. On June 30, officials take their oaths of office, and the official clock starts ticking.

The basic building blocks of our government are the terms of local officials, which include your mayors, governors, and of course, congressmen. They’re all elected for three years. These three years constitute a term of office.

In the case of your congressman, the term he or she serves in a particular Congress defines the life of that Congress, since the House of Representatives is the bigger, and in a sense, most basic, half of Congress. Every three years, or every term, Congress has to close shop, so that congressmen can go back home to stay hired, or be fired. The Senate, of course, while each senator has a longer term of six years, also has half of its membership having to go to before the electorate, too. That way, every three years, the public has a chance to decide how it wants the balance of power in Congress to be.

And so, every three years, one Congress passes into history, and another is elected. This is why the Congress elected in 2004 was our Thirteenth Congress; and why, after we’re done with elections on the second Monday of next May, the members of the  14th Congress of the Republic will take their oaths on June 30, 2007. On the fourth Monday of July, as in every year, the new regular session of that Congress will begin. Each session lasts as long as Congress wants, but must end 30 days before the start of the next regular session.

In between elections, each year of the three year term, is called a regular session of Congress. So again, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo goes to Congress next week, she will be addressing the third regular session of the 13th Congress, the last session of that Congress before a new Congress is elected next May.

We all know our government works on the principle that the President administers or acts as a manager, the Congress passes laws, and the Supreme Court makes sure the other two branches aren’t violating the Constitution or the laws.

Now all these things require money, and for money to be spent, Congress has to pass what is called The General Appropriations Act, the national budget. Now the budget is first prepared, then submitted, by the President to the House of Representatives. 

The House, composed of local representatives, has the sole power to propose spending. So the President’s shopping list is first gone over by members of the House. They can accept it, or change it.

When they’re done, the budget is sent to the Senate, representing the nation as a whole, to review in turn. Senators in general can oppose, or propose amendments, to the House’s budget, but they can’t initiate a budget on their own.

Along the way, either chamber of Congress can decide to call in members of the cabinet, to get a better idea of how money was spent the previous year, or how it should be spent in the coming fiscal year. Sometimes members of Congress don’t want answers, they just want to have fun or make someone’s life miserable. This is their prerogative. After all, they have what’s called the power of the purse. And for any of us whose had to charm and beg for our allowance, sometimes the person with wallet can ask the darndest things.

Like the Spanish saying, the President proposes, but Congress disposes. But how do Presidents get to lobby Congress and the public, to go along with their proposals for the spending of public funds? That’s where the State of the Nation Address comes in. Our Constitution requires our presidents to tell the country about how things are, and how presidents believe things ought to be. How are we to judge the government’s performance over the past year? And where does government want to bring us in the year to come? Let the President make a report, so we can all be informed.

That’s why our present Constitution requires, among many other things, the following:


Art. VII (Executive Department) Sec. 22. The President shall submit to the Congress within thirty days from the opening of the regular session, as the basis of the general appropriations bill, a budget of expenditures and sources of financing, including receipts from existing and proposed revenue measures.

And next,

Art. VII (Executive Department) Sec. 23. The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session. He may also appear before it at any other time.


Our presidents are therefore required to go to Congress in person, and also, to submit a budget. That’s different from the American practice, for example, which is vaguer.

No President from George Washington until Woodrow Wilson came along, bothered to go to Congress in person to speak of the American state of the Union. Wilson began the practice, which has become an important annual event since then.

But if you noticed, our Constitution only instructs presidents to go before Congress. Nowhere does it call the speech a “state of the nation address.” So why do we call it that?

The 1935 Constitution, as amended, contained the following provision:

Art. VII (Executive Department), Section 10. (5) The President shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the state of the nation, and recommend to its consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

But even if the first “State of the Nation Address” was delivered on June 16, 1936, during the opening of the First Session of the First National Assembly, it’s title was merely “On The Country’s Conditions and Problems.”

In fact, it seems that only with Manuel Roxas’s first address to Congress as the president of an independent republic that we find the title, “Message on the State of the Nation.” This was delivered on January 27, 1947, to the First Congress of our Republic (remember, our present Congress is the 13th). With the Republic thus began formally calling the subject of the president’s message the “State of the Nation.”

By the time of Roxas’s successor, Elpidio Quirino, the State of the Nation address was firmly established as a tradition. His message, simply titled, “Address on the State of Nation,”  was delivered on January 22, 1951, and we can say that the SONA in its present form, dates to that time.

Today, of course, the State of the Nation Address is really two events. The first is the one demanded by the Constitution. The other one usually doesn’t involve government at all.

It was the rise of student protests in the late 1960s, that turned the State of the Nation Address to the ceremony of state competing with a session of the parliament of the streets that it is today. The famous First Quarter Storm was the direct result of the State of the Nation Address for 1970. Back then, terms of office began on December 30, Rizal Day, and Congress began its sessions, held in the Legislative Building on P. Burgos in Manila, in January. President Marcos, recently re-elected to office, made his speech, but was attacked with a papier mache crocodile as he was leaving Congress. Mrs. Marcos, in the scuffle, sprained her ankle. 

The tradition of the official state of the nation, countered by demonstrations saying some don’t believe it, has been with us pretty much ever since. That’s why next week, 12,000 soldiers will be there to guard Congress from the people.


When we come back, how are SONAs put together?


Question: Who was the first President not to deliver a SONA on their own?


From writing to delivery: the making of a SONA

The answer to our question was shown in our clip. The first president to be accompanied at the restrum was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Her “Bankang papel” speech in 2003 was the first time non-members of Congress served as human props for a State of the Nation Address. That same speech also made use of a rhetorical device American speechwriters call a “Lenny Skutnik”

Lenny Skutnik was a person US President Ronald Reagan pointed out in the audience during his 1982 State of the Union address, to help make a point. Since then, American presidents use guests in the audience to inspire applause and underline some of their themes.

Using rhetorical devices  in speeches actually brings up the question, how is a SONA put together? If a speech were a cake, there are two parts. The baking of the cake, and putting the icing on the cake.

In their book on presidential inaugural addresses, Jon and Ed Malaya came up with an interesting list of presidential ghost writers.

For example, the late Hernando Abaya said President Quezon’s “super ghost” was the late Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos. President Osmena had Executive Secretary Jose Reyes. say that President Roxas had Jorge Bocobo and Mariano Ezpeleta to attend to matters of style together with Federico Mangahas, who also ghosted for President Quirino; Leon Ma. Guerrero, Emmanuel Pelaez, and Raul Manglapus were all involved in President Magsaysay’s addresses; Rufino Hechanova, Rodrigo Perez and Vicente Albano Pacis have been identified with President Macapagal; while  Adrian Cristobal, Krip Yuson, “Kit” Tatad and Blas Ople were among President Marcos’s well-known writers.

Rep, Teddy Locsin was identified as having a great impact on President Aquino’s speeches, just as Gen. Jose Almonte was identified with President Ramos’s addresses and Danilo Reyes was among those who contributed to President Estrada’s addresses. During his time in the cabinet, Silvestre Afable, Jr. helped put together many of President Arroyo’s major speeches, though her pool of talent has always been large and extremely qualified.

In their book, the Malaya brothers found a description of how the 1947 State of the Nation address was put together for President Roxas. Cabinet secretaries were asked for reports on what their departments did over the past year, and intended to do during the next. These were put together, and an first draft made. Then the draft went to a group of writers for polishing. Then the President took a look, made changes, and sent it back. Then the speech was ready for delivery. What amazed the writers was that when Roxas delivered the speech the next day, he hardly looked at his copy and yet delivered it virtually word-for-word. President Marcos also had that gift. 

Today, the drafting of the SONA takes months, involving up to tens of dozens of people. The Presidential Management Staff in Malacanang, established by President Marcos, bears the brunt of the work.

They bug and nag government agencies for their report, and prepare the initial list of topics to include. Meanwhile, a long and often passionate debate goes on between those who want to cram everything in, and those who are more interested in making a splash. How long should the speech be? And what sort of impact should it have? How do you keep the country from falling asleep?

All these are debated prior to submission of each draft to the President, usually during the deliberations, and sometimes, up to the very last minute.

All presidents have their own style of writing and delivery. Some are more interested in the crafting of a speech than others. But every president has the last say, and the last word, on what goes in , and how it’s going to be expressed.


And then the day of the SONA arrives.


Since they hold sessions in different places, both Houses of Congress come together for a joint session. Congress issues a formal invitation to the President, the rest of the government, and the diplomatic corps.

People compete for invitations. Rallyists get together.

And after the Session is called to order, the President is then invited in, introduced, and makes her speech. The nation grinds to a halt, and listens.

During a SONA, there are some basics. The President thanks Congress for the chance to address it, and the nation. The President generally tries to point to problems, but emphasizes that there are solutions. To emphasize which sector her speech is aimed at, sometimes presidents engage in “Code-switching” during  the delivery.

This means alternating between say, Filipino, and English as a cue that the President is saying something significant. Folksy things are often said in Filipino, to reassure the masses; English is used to tackle difficult things like economics to prove to foreign observers and the government, that a president is not only serious, but knowledgeable in the subject at hand.


My view

The need to cram so many things into a State of the Nation address means they’re usually long, and as a result, often forgettable. But they serve a necessary purpose, which decades of increasing gimmickry in the way they’re delivered shouldn’t hide. We all deserve to know what government’s up to. Most of all, we need to get a sense of what governments have in store for us. Agree or disagree with what’s said, the SONA is one of the few times each year that literally, as well as symbolically, our country comes together. We can debate all we want afterwards, and we should. But let’s listen –and let’s try to remember that together with the SONA should come the proposed budget: and just as we expect to be enlightened by the SONA, we should remember to pay attention to deliberations on how our public funds will be spent.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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