Core
Business World, 21 July 2015

 

It’s almost three decades since democracy was restored in the land. Each President, including Cory Aquino, was expected to strengthen political institutions. Brick by brick, each President should strengthen the foundations laid down by his predecessor.

Sadly, the Aquino III administration, after five years in office, has weakened, not strengthened, political institutions.

He weakened the Supreme Court, a co-equal branch of government, by defying the high court’s ruling that the ill-conceived Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) was unconstitutional. The 2014 and 2015 budgets contain features that defy the Court’s ruling that it is the responsibility of Congress to authorize the budget and that it has no role in the implementation of the budget.

Mr. Aquino “terrorized” the members of the Supreme Court by aggressively pushing for the impeachment and conviction of its Chief Justice, using the full powers of the Presidency and the fiscal resources of the Republic.

Mr. Aquino “captured” Congress through the use of pork barrel (the DAP, the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF, and other special releases). As a sign of the President’s total domination of Congress, the Senate President and the House Speaker hired a former associate justice of the Supreme Court to argue before the Supreme Court that the DAP is acceptable to Congress. This is odd, since this implies that Congress is willingly embracing the presidential usurpation of the congressional power of the purse.

A strong opposition is a sign that democracy is alive and kicking. Yet Mr. Aquino deliberately and purposively weakened the political opposition. He put key opposition leaders behind bars on allegations of irregularities in the use of PDAF.

What a strange development. The 1987 Constitution provides that the Executive Department is responsible for preparing and implementing the national budget, while Congress is responsible for authorizing the budget — nothing more, nothing less.

Obviously, senators and congressmen have nothing to do with the release and use of public funds. That’s the sole responsibility of executive officials: the Department of Budget and Management officials for the release of the Special Allotment Release Order, and the department secretaries and agency heads for identifying the project implementors, conduct of public bidding, award of bids, disbursement of funds, and monitoring of results.

So, how come the opposition legislators are behind bars and the executive officials are scot-free? Some may argue that the executive officials are only following orders by legislators. But what’s the hold of legislators on executive officials? And if the orders are unlawful, aren’t executive officials supposed to ignore them?

And isn’t it mind-boggling that only opposition legislators are behind bars?

Political parties remain unstable. Major candidates are chosen not through party conventions but through Social Weather Stations survey results.

WHAT SHOULD BE CHANGED

The 1987 Constitution is almost 30 years old. Its economic provisions should be relaxed. They have been a major constraint to economic growth, being one of the disincentives for the entry of foreign direct investments into the country.

While there is near unanimity that relaxing the restrictive provisions of the Philippine Constitution is long overdue, that’s not the subject of today’s article.

Today’s article has something to do with the political provisions, which need to be reviewed too.

As a serious student of public administration for more than 40 years, as an economist, and as a former policy maker, I have listed down some changes in the 1987 Constitution that appear to be warranted.

First, the President and the Vice-President should be elected for a term of four years, with one reelection. This is a return to the old system prior to the 1987 Constitution. Remember that, except for Ferdinand Marcos, Filipino voters rejected all Philippine presidents who ran for reelection.

Six years is awfully long for an inept, ineffectual, vindictive and corrupt President. But four years is too short for a competent, effective, inclusive and “clean” President.

The presidential system of government should be maintained. Several survey results show that Filipinos prefer to vote directly their President. Under a parliamentary set-up, the Prime Minister is chosen indirectly though the members of the Parliament.

Second, the President and Vice-President should be elected as a team. The two positions should be voted jointly. This is to avoid having a split ticket, which has characterized three of the four presidencies (Ramos/Estrada, Estrada/Macapagal-Arroyo, and Aquino III/Binay). The Vice-President should concurrently be the Senate presiding officer. This enhances political stability and gives the President a vital link to Congress.

Third, the senators should be elected by region, not nationally. With two senators per region and 17 administrative regions, the nation will elect 34 senators: two from the National Capital Region, 14 from the rest of Luzon, six from the Visayas, and 12 from Mindanao. That’s a quantum leap from the present situation: Visayas and Mindanao would have 18 out of the 34 senators. Imperial Manila will be entitled to two senators.

By electing senators by region, the representation of the Visayas and Mindanao is improved significantly.

As a practical matter, the costs of a senatorial campaign will be reduced sharply, and the payback period will be shortened radically. The lower cost of running a senatorial campaign has another plus: more and hopefully better and abler senatorial candidates may be encouraged to run and win.

The new proposed regional representation could potentially change the behavior of senators. At present, since senators are elected nationally, they have the illusion that they are automatically “presidentiable” material. Hogwash. Can you imagine how much better the Senate would look like if fewer senators behave as if they are God’s gift to the Filipino nation?

Fourth, there should be no term limit for positions from senators down to barangay kagawad (village councilman). In practice, the term limit provision is a big joke. To some extent, it has encouraged political dynasties.

For example, if Mayor X were an effective and competent mayor, why should his wife or son fill up his post after nine years (or three terms)? This faulty arrangement encourages investing in the wife, son, brother or sister in preparation for when the mayor’s term is up. If Mayor X can serve for unlimited terms, subject to periodic elections, then there is no need for building up a relative as his possible “benchwarmer”.

In the United States, the late Senator Ted Kennedy served as senator of Massachusetts for about half a century, without a break, and he served the people of his state and the entire country well. And that is true for other legendary senators in the United States.

If Mayor X is a superior public official, then why settle for an inferior “temp”? For example, why can’t Governor Joey Salceda serve as governor of Albay or Governor Vilma Santos-Recto serve as governor of Batangas for as long as they want, subject to electoral support? Both seem to be doing a great job.

Fifth, the role of the party-list system in a presidential form of government should be revisited. The party-list system works best in a multi-party parliamentary system. But it is an anachronism in a presidential system of government, where it has become a farce and a great source of leakage of public funds. Many party-list representatives do not really represent their true constituencies.

MANAGING THE PROCESS

For obvious reasons, those who will be elected in May 2016 should not benefit from the amendments to the Constitution. These amendments, if done within the next three years, should take effect on July 1, 2022.

On the mode of reforming the Constitution, I prefer convening a Constitutional Convention to a Constitutional Assembly. I expect some of the these proposed constitutional amendments to the political system will not pass if they are left in the hands of the newly elected 2016 Congress. Party-list representatives will oppose Proposal No. 5 while a majority of senators might reject Proposal No. 3.

Overall, there might be a greater chance of success if the proposed amendments are done through an elected constitutional convention.

Besides, the next Congress would have a full agenda. It should focus on a lot of unfinished pieces of legislation that will be left undone by the present administration, such as tax reform, including the rationalization of fiscal incentives, and the Freedom of Information Act.