Presidents never err; only appointees do

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The President is always right. Not so his appointees. When the highest official of the land fouls up, a lesser mortal must take the fall.

The White House evolved that infallibility rule. The US Chief Executive’s image must be kept intact, noted George Reedy in “The Twilight of the Presidency” (1970). First in Washington’s firing line is the White House Chief of Staff. The CoS is the president’s right-hand man, overseeing for him the entire executive staff. The appointee needs no congressional consent, but lower ones must pass grilling.

Adopting America’s ways, Malacañang follows that unwritten code. The Philippine equivalent is the executive secretary. While that primus inter pares of appointees must submit his credentials, Congress’ Commission on Appointments confirms him promptly, as courtesy to the President.

The ES has both line and staff functions. He supervises 8,000 other presidential choices. Those include the President’s immediate circle: spokesman, legal counsel, finance director, aide-de-camp, protocol officer, social secretary and management staff. Plus, Cabinet secretaries, under- and assistant secretaries, bureau and regional directors, commissioners and state corporation board members.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. has barely started the selection. Only a week in office, he has yet to pick secretaries for health, energy and environment and natural resources. The rest can be stretched over the first 100 days’ honeymoon with the opposition, press and public.

Yet controversies rumble about early choices. Reportedly with conflicts of interest are the four highest positions at a GOCC (government-owned and controlled corporation). The general manager-designate reportedly owns with daughters ferry lines. Operating 20 percent of ports, his firms allegedly owe government P132 million. His lawyer claims they intend to pay the debt after litigation. He is said to be bringing in three fellow-shipping and port businessmen to various positions. “The regulated also will be the regulators,” competitors howled.

Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez is expected to withdraw the appointments. He must avert the explosion of the issue in his boss Marcos Jr.’s face. Those backgrounds may have slipped past the vetting committee; Rodriguez must serve as final screener.

Three other controversies have been reported. One is the surprise nomination of an ex-congressman with no knowledge in the energy secretary-ship. This shunted aside another former lawmaker and dynastic supporter of Marcos Jr. Second is the placement as environment secretary of a failed mayoral candidate last May. The law bans election losers from government appointment till after one year.

The last is Marcos Jr.’s veto of the bill for economic zone status to the rising New Manila International Airport in Bulacan.

Authored by Marcos’ sister Senator Imee Marcos, the bill grants tax incentives to aviation investors that would set up shop in Aerocity beside the 1,500-hectare NMIA. Congress intends such incentives to attract high-tech firms. San Miguel Corp. is to build the P740-billion aerodrome on its own, without sovereign guarantee.

The veto could have been limited to the exemption from certain state audit rules, the portion that Malacañang disliked. The Constitution’s Article VI, Section 27 allows line-item veto in an appropriation, revenue or tariff bill. Raising eyebrows, the blanket veto unfairly put SMC’s project in a bad light. It was rushed last weekend apparently with incomplete staffwork, as the bill would have lapsed into law last Monday, 30 days after enrollment.

Those controversies could have been avoided. Four times the President was left with nobody covering his back.

In his book “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” (2017), political analyst Chris Whipple quoted job self-descriptions by 30 former CoS of 12 US presidents. Among them: the President’s SOB, absolute loyalty to the Boss, able to meld policy and politics, know how to fire and be fired, humble enough to listen to all, present to the Chief Executive all views including those contrary to his, able to tell the President painful truths, manage daily the President’s idea-processing time to include screening of unnecessary visitors even close friends and relatives, and discipline appointees who have “spoils of war” mentality. Most of all, must willingly take the bullet for him.


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