FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2019 - 12:00am

President Rodrigo Duterte breaks from the mold once more.

In a brief meeting in Tokyo with the three leading aspirants for Speaker of the House, the President said he would leave the leadership choice entirely to the congressmen. It seems he is really serious about this. The announcement radically changed the dynamic of the race for speakership.

In principle, the choice of Speaker truly belongs to the House. In practice, of course, we all know the sitting president winks and nods his preference for the post. That is why the Speaker of the House is always a trusted ally of the sitting president.

The mold was cracked last year when congressmen ousted Pantaleon Alvarez from the speakership apparently without the President’s foreknowledge. The President’s daughter, Davao City mayor Sara Duterte, played a key role in that coup.

Now, with both the President and Sara professing noninterference in the leadership choice, the dynamics of the speakership contest is altered. Rather than await signals from the Palace, congressmen now feel free to choose the leader they want.

Reports have it that the President came to his decision after Lord Allan Velasco turned down the suggestion for time-sharing the speakership with Allan Peter Cayetano. His refusal had merit. It would undermine the integrity of the House in managing its affairs.

The time-sharing proposal might have given Cayetano, who has scarce support among the congressmen, a backdoor entry to the leadership post. He needs that post desperately as staging ground for a projected 2022 bid for the presidency.

The failure of that time-sharing formula leaves Cayetano out in the cold. He has earned Sara Duterte’s ire for threatening a breakaway. He alienated the party-list bloc by telling them he did not intend to negotiate with them during a meeting where the incoming party-list congressmen intended precisely to negotiate with the prospective Speaker. This could prove to be politically fatal for him.

Cayetano’s effective elimination does not, however, translate into an advantage for Velasco. The Marinduque congressman’s strongest card is his supposed closeness to the Dutertes. With both father and daughter now professing disinterest in the choice of Speaker, Velasco loses his strong suit.

The net gainer in this recent turn of events appears to be Martin Romualdez.

The Leyte congressman is reported to have 142 of his colleagues committed to vote for him. That is just a few votes shy of an outright majority. Other members of the pro-administration supermajority in the House now feel they have a free hand in voting their real choice without waiting for signals from the Palace.

With sincere (rather than dictated) support, Romualdez appears better positioned to effectively lead a House legendary for its fractiousness.  He is considered the best consensus builder of the three. He is wise to the ways of our politics.

Of the three, he is considered most independent of the big business tycoons. That translates into a freer hand in leading legislation of the economic reforms the ruling coalition wants done.

Waved through

The President may have cleared his desk of the messy speakership issue, but other sources of his perennial migraine remain. Among the biggest of these is the continuing prevalence of corruption at the Bureau of Customs.

Earlier this week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson estimated the illegal drugs amounting to billions entered our ports because of the incompetence or corruption of Customs officials. He named a Chinese national, Xu Zhi Jian (alias Jacky Co) as being responsible for the attempt to smuggle P1.8 billion worth of shabu last March. The alleged gangster has apparently been able to freely enter the country despite being on the watch list. 

The senator decried the continuation of the notorious “tara” system where bribes are collected and systematically distributed among Customs personnel. The collection of bribes enables smugglers to evade inspection and get questionable cargo through Customs controls.

In Customs parlance, containers that might contain contraband are simply “waved through” the checkpoints. Even cargoes that have been subject to “alerts” are able to go through because of the “tara” system.

Lacson, in furtherance of his recent expose, might want to look into persistent reports that at least 640 (and as much as 1,500) containers have been “waved through” from April to August last year alone. Even if not all of them contained illegal drugs and were imported by those engaged in mere technical smuggling, that number of containers translates into billions in lost revenue. The payoffs should have been huge.

 Because of the value of goods that pass through the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) and the Port of Manila, these two control points are most lucrative. It has been observed that officials appointed to command these two vital control points are among the most influential in the BoC. They exchange places much like in a game of musical chairs.

A closer scrutiny of this pattern of appointing officials to the most lucrative posts will probably tell us an interesting story.

Last year, the entire Bureau of Customs actually over-performed on their collection targets. The only notable exception to this was the miserable collection performance of the MICP.  The Customs Commissioner should tell us why, even as his Bureau performed exceedingly well last year, the most lucrative collection point failed to meet its targets.

Notwithstanding, the officials who hold command responsibility for not meeting collection targets appear to have been rewarded plum positions rather than penalized. This does not speak well for the otherwise laudable effort of this administration to cut corruption and halt the entry of contraband.

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