Today’s Inquirer editorial proposes the abolition of special license plates for officials. This is an issue that appears and clutters the opinion pages and then wanes with predictable regularity. Officialdom, even when not corrupt or abusive, thrives on the symbols of privilege. Special license plates are the equivalent of the gold braid and other insignia that obsesses the military, for example (reading the story of virtually any revolutionary army and you’ll find, as happened to Washington and Aguinaldo, that even in societies aiming to establish a republican regime, titles and symbols of rank obsessed those holding and aspiring to them).
The plates that members of the House and the Senate use are often abused not by the members themselves, but their relatives. College campus parking lots often boast vehicles bearing Congressional plates used by the children or nieces and nephews of Representatives, for example. Neither the schools nor the student bodies do anything about it.
I have always opposed the abolition of official plates not only because I believe that protocol is not the real issue at hand and therefore, that those who oppose protocol only do so from ignorance and the wrong sort of egalitarian instincts but because they do serve a practical purpose.
For example, the editorial completely ignored the flipside to the reality it pointed out: the reality being that it may just be that policemen who spot vehicles bearing official plates will be intimidated into not enforcing traffic rules when it comes to that vehicle; the flipside is that what is probably more intimidating is neither the vehicle nor the plate but rather, the strong probability whoever’s riding in the vehicle is accompanied by bodyguards and a motorcyle escort composed of policemen more senior and agressive than any regular traffic enforcer.
The editorial also ignores the executive department. Aside from the President of the Philippines (No. 1) and the Vice-President of the Philippines (No. 2) in the past, cabinet members had their own official plates. But if you’ve noticed, even cabinet members entitled to cabinet plates have dispensed with using them. Does this mean that they rush around without the benefit of motorcycle escorts or bodyguards? Of course not.
What they do is rush around with escort vehicles and a retinue of motorcycle escorts with sirens, but without official plates, and, I’ve noticed quite often in recent years, usually without any license plates attached to their vehicle at all.
The end result of this is that no one can stop the little convoy trying to bully its way through traffic, but no one can figure out who the official is, although it’s obvious (because some of the escort vehicles sport license plates with red numbers, indicating they are government vehicles) that the person being escorted is an official. Proximity of the little convoys to and from the presidential palace indicates they’re off to or coming from the Palace.
Presidents periodically issue Executive Orders, Administrative Orders, Memorandum Circulars, etc., regulating the use of motorcycle escorts (if memory serves me right, the most recent one limits official escorts and sirens to the President, Vice-President, Senate President. Speaker of the House and Chief Justice, Nos. 1 to 5, respectively), an executive issuance the chief executive’s own subordinates take the lead in ignoring.
Members of Congress in a sense, are too stupid to realize they are living proof of why official plates make sense. As elected officials, they have to respond to the public and when the public is critical of their behavior, they have to modify it accordingly: and the public knows what it does precisely because the official plates identify the members of the legislature.
In contrast, officials in the executive department have it both ways: they violate the law, and do so with impunity, because they continue to enjoy anonymity.
It seems the Speaker of the House is too stupid to tell the LTO, which wants each official plate to identify the district the legislator belongs to, that it ought to look into the number of vehicles used by cabinet members and other presidential subordinates that don’t use license plates at all, and all of which violates executive issuances, and how diplomatic vehicles (the 1000 plates used by ambassadors which are supposed to identify the country of the ambassador) tape over their country designations.
But he is not being too politically-obtuse in not holding a caucus asking his colleagues to limit the plates they use (ideally, each legislator should only get one pair of plates for one vehicle, not multiple plates for multiple vehicles as happens these days) and agree to identifying their districts (if the objection is security then the legislator ought to not use official plates, and not use escorts, and take their chances going incognito in private cars). They’d never agree, and he knows it.
Keep the official plates. We’re entitled to know where our representatives are, and whether they drive around with a minimum of fuss or with an elaborate escort. As with so many things, the debate is over the wrong things -not official plates, but the abuse of them and that includes new innovations as demonstrated by the executive department.