Tit for tat
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - December 30, 2019 - 12:00am

There has been so much hue and cry here in our country over an obvious case of “insertion” into the 2020 federal budget of the United States. It was actually a “rider” provision on the 2020 budget law that US President Donald Trump signed before the US fiscal year ended last week.

The now controversial “rider” is the amendment to deny the entry to the US of Philippine officials implicated in the perceived “wrongful” detention of Sen. Leila de Lima who has been charged with a non-bailable crime. De Lima has been undergoing trial for a number of cases that included alleged conspiracy in the illegal drugs trade during her watch as Secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Effectively, this “rider” would require American Immigration authorities to prevent the entry into any US territory any of the Philippine government officials who prominently figured in putting De Lima in detention. These Philippine officials may include incumbent Senator Richard Gordon whose Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigated the “shabu” and other illegal drug traffic trade right inside the DOJ-supervised New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City.

 And likely who would be denied entry into the US are Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go and former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald dela Rosa who are now Senators themselves.

At this stage, it is not certain yet if such an amendment was inserted in the 2020 US budget law. Oddly, both Malacañang and De Lima camps confirm there is such. But should a ban from entry into US territory be enforced against these Philippine officials or anyone involved in – or by reason of – Senator De Lima’s detention, an enraged President Rodrigo Duterte is ready to hit back against all Americans in general. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo disclosed the presidential threat that all Americans intending to come to the Philippines will henceforth be required to apply and secure a visa before they can enter any territory of our country. “If they will enforce this provision in the US budget, then we will be compelled (to require) all Americans entering this country to secure a visa,” Panelo announced.

As the country’s chief foreign policy architect, the President can make such unilateral decision.

As of this writing, neither the US Embassy in Manila nor even our own Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has made any clarifications, comments or statement on the matter.

 As it turned out, the “rider” in the 2020 US federal budget was an amendment introduced on a provision that touches on Financial Management and Budget Transparency of countries like the Philippines that get financial grants or aids that get allocations from the US government.

 The specific provision includes a clause on Prohibition on Entry that specified against “foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information (sic.) have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of: [...] Senator Leila de Lima who was arrested in the Philippines in 2017.”

Take note though of the limitations spelled out in this provision: “credible information” that the US State Department Secretary, referring to the current Secretary Mike Pompeo. Our own DFA Secretary, Teodoro Locsin has only high regard to his American counterpart as not in the mold of the US Senators behind the budget “rider” that has created all these hullaballoos.

The authors of the US budget “rider” were identified as US Senators Dick Durbin (Democrats, Illinois) and Patrick Leahy (Vermont). Durbin, a lawyer, is a veteran lawmaker who first started serving in the US Congress in 1996. Currently, he is the Senate Democratic minority whip. Leahy, on the other hand, is one of the most senior US Democrat Senators. Now 79 years old, Leahy has served in many key committees at the US Senate that included the powerful appropriations panel that passes upon the annual federal budget. 

Mr. Trump apparently did not bother to exercise his line-item veto on this “rider” provision. Moreover, the Trump administration could not afford also to suffer another delayed approval into law of their federal budget for next year. The operations of the US federal government get suspended if there is no budget law effective first day of the fiscal year.

Unlike us here, our country’s 1987 Constitution allows automatic appropriations first day if no new annual budget is signed into law by the end of the year.

Faced with his own impeachment troubles before the US Congress, Mr. Trump is at the mercy of Democrats that control the US House of Representatives. Durbin and Leahy and other like-minded US lawmakers could not care less if they also raise the hackles of Trump’s buddy in the Philippines who he fondly calls “Rodrigo.”

On Friday, Panelo revealed President Duterte will officially decline Trump’s invitation to visit the US as another offshoot of the budget “rider” ban.

So you see, our own lawmakers in Congress here have no monopoly on budget “insertions.” They learned it from the best practices of lawmakers across the globe. But like any other budget laws, such provisions are only effective for that fiscal year. So, why fret if our Philippine government officials would not be able to travel to the US for one year?

The presidential threat to require visa for Americans before coming here was announced at a time that our Department of Tourism (DOT) held special ceremony to highlight the arrival in Manila our country’s 8 millionth tourist this year.

Optimistic to reach its goal of 8.2 million foreign travelers for the year, DOT welcomed the arrival of an elderly Japanese couple as the country’s eight millionth visitors. Japan is the country’s fourth largest source of tourists. Korea remains the top source market with 1,609,172 tourist arrivals followed by China with a total of 1.5 million arrivals, and the US ranked third with 872,335 arrivals.

For now, the President’s order applies only to the two US Senators. Surely, we don’t know if they even wish to come here. Reciprocity is the standard language in diplomacy. But in this case, it’s just tit-for-tat.

DONALD TRUMP
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