FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered government officials to clear with him before appearing before Senate hearings. How this presidential instruction will work out eventually is anybody’s guess.

The President is bothered by the volume of executive time wasted each time the Senate summons over a hundred “resource persons” and ends up speaking to only a handful. It does look like the Senate is driven by institutional vanity in these instances. The chamber has the power to issue subpoenas to anyone they wish and the senators exercise that prerogative to the hilt. Taxpayers pay for the wasted executive time caused by the chamber’s vanity.

Inquiries “in aid of legislation” happen everywhere. But in most cases, legislators do their homework first. They gather the evidence and politely present their cases to the public. If a public official has to be questioned, a professional litigator who has carefully lined up the questions in a most logical manner undertakes the task. This avoids the semblance of legislators ganging up on a resource person or the spectacle of random questioning. This avoids the process degenerating into a fishing expedition or an exercise in political grandstanding.

That does not happen in most of our congressional hearings. Instead, legislators are lined up and throw questions at random – often repetitively. They bait or bamboozle witnesses. It is not optimal use of both legislative and executive time.

We do not know if the President’s instruction to clear any appearance with him applies only to appointees. Career civil servants are bound to honor a Senate subpoena.

Recall Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued an executive order to restrict the appearance of members of her Cabinet before congressional hearings. In this case, she invoked “executive privilege.” The matter ended up in court and the President’s ability to prevent her officials appearing in congressional hearings was restricted.

Duterte did not invoke “executive privilege” when he instructed his officials to clear any appearance with him. He did not invoke “national security.” The immediate context of his instruction was the waste of executive time. We will have to wait for the first instance an official is disallowed from participation in a congressional hearing to get a better sense of the legality or the feasibility of this specific presidential instruction. The instruction, after all, may not be exercised at all.

In the President’s mind, the Senate hearing is now academic. Since the medical equipment purchased by the DBM procurement service observed the price guidance at that time of purchase, then no “overprice” happened. The senators who claimed “premeditated plunder” manufactured a scandal by comparing the price of shoddy masks with better masks.

At the last hearing, it was clear this manufactured scandal was dwindling. It has moved from the main avenue of proving “premeditated plunder” to the meandering alleyways of bookkeepers recoding deliveries ahead of procurement deals being signed and warehousemen admitting they signed delivery receipts without actually seeing the goods delivered. We are down to the byways of procedural lapses on the part of private suppliers who happen to have bagged really large government orders – the volumes being dictated by the exigencies of a severe public health crisis.

From hereon, the senators will be hard-pressed to keep this dwindling controversy going. They will have to increasingly rely on innuendo and speculation, seizing any minor discrepancy in the statements of minor players to keep this show on the road. That might require implicating Duterte no less in this questioned procurement.

PDP-Laban president Al Cusi issued a statement last Tuesday accusing the opposition for inflating controversies such as the one involving Pharmally as a means to attack the President, hoping to make a dent in his overwhelming popularity.

Our propensity for this sort of partisan circuses Cusi attributes to a personality-centered electoral politics. For as long as our politics is driven by personalities rather than programs of government, Cusi seems to be arguing, we will be heirs to the sort of scandal-mongering we have seen so much of.

Continuing with this thesis, Cusi claims the PDP-Laban is offering the voters “continuity” in programs of government, elevating our electoral politics beyond being a mere popularity contest. The PDP-Laban last Sept. 8 formally nominated Senator Bong Go as its presidential candidate and Rodrigo Duterte as his runningmate.

Cusi believes that through its nominees the ruling party could foster a national discussion on the agenda for government, daring the other political groups to put forward an alternative program of government to contest the one espoused by the Duterte administration. Scandal mongering is not the only way to practice electoral democracy.

The ruling party is clearly betting there is a “continuity” constituency out there, voting for the Go-Duterte tandem in the next elections. Go, however, has not accepted the party’s draft.

Only the forthcoming surveys will tell us if a “continuity” constituency indeed exists. With no contrasting programs of government put forward, however, delineating a “continuity” constituency might be a challenge.

The standard voter preference surveys measure support for personalities, not political platforms. We can only infer from the top-of-mind issues that the surveys sometimes attempt to measure.

We do not need the surveys to know that the pandemic is top of mind among our voters. That is a two-edged sword. If voters think the Duterte administration handled the pandemic well, then this should translate somehow into voting preferences.

In the same way, if voters think that handling of the public health crisis has been a disaster, then no amount of propaganda or political organization can sway them from casting a protest vote.

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