SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

We join the world in mourning the passing of the ceremonial leader of the 56-state strong commonwealth of nations, the universally cherished Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, its dependencies and territories.

The Queen presided over the most famous and formidable monarchy in the western world. She came in, accidentally, to steady a shaken institution and ended up a pillar of strength for her nation.

No one has meant more to so many for as long as she had. She led a life of duty which she embraced as true responsibility and service that was scrupulously impartial. Her legacy will be immortal.

Our own experience under monarchy belongs to the history books. After absolutist Spanish rule, we started the 20th Century a territory under a Republic, where the voice of the people is fountainhead of authority to govern. Power was subdivided as an insurance against concentration in the hands of one man.

The great departments. In this context, we appreciate the work of our congressional representatives diligently scrutinizing our national budget or establishing the truth on anomalous transactions unearthed. The hearings have arguably presented our legislators at their most industrious. Here are excellent representations of oversight 101.

The flurry of activity has matched the hum and pulse emanating from Malacañang. With only 71 days so far into the Marcos administration, even while still “on honeymoon,” our new leadership has been in fever pitch organizing for governance. Already, the President has managed two state visits to our strongest allies in the region.

Even the Supreme Court has picked up the pace with heightened activity to declog its dockets. All in all, it has been a good start for this new leadership.

Oversight. The marathon budget hearings belong to a variant of oversight referred to as legislative scrutiny. Thank you again to Chief Justice Rey Puno’s prolific pen and scholarship who laid out the basics in his concurring and dissenting opinion in 2003’s Macalintal v Comelec.

It is really the power to appropriate which we associate with congressional oversight. Congress holds the power of the purse in recognition of the principle that since it’s our money, “people ought to hold the purse strings.” The phrase is attributed to former US Vice President Elbridge Gerry. Yes, he of gerrymander fame. This undemocratic term is a contraction of his surname Gerry and the word salamander which is the shape of the state senate district created in a redistricting bill he signed as Massachusetts governor.

The primary purpose of this scrutiny is to promote economy, efficiency and to ensure accountability. No wastage, abuse, corruption. Hence, the summons upon agency officials to present reports and plans during budget hearings. Has the executive branch been acting in consonance with legislative goals? As the adage goes, “The President proposes, Congress disposes.”

The other major method of oversight is legislative investigation. While legislative scrutiny contemplates only what information is presented, investigation goes deeper and mines for facts/evidence not apparent to the eye. Per se, oversight is not a constitutionally explicit power. The power to investigate, however, is expressly granted via the provision in Art. VI, Sec. 21 that “[t]he Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure...” These are the hearings, among others on the Sugar Regulatory Administration import order and the Procurement Services-DBM continuing saga.

Interbranch tension. This is one side of legislation, with senators and congressmen immersed in administering the complex bureaucracy apart from the conventional functions of “debating and voting” on issues of national importance.

It was John Stuart Mill who astutely observed that “one of the dangers of a controlling assembly is that it may be lavish of powers, but afterwards interfere with their exercise; may give power by wholesale and take it back in detail, by multiple single acts of interference in the business of administration ... ”

Modernization is the impetus behind the growing administrative structure and the burgeoning bureaucracy. In the delegation of power to agencies, Congress sets the broad goals and tries to articulate workable standards for guidance. But in the end, the choice of options falls on those uninvolved in the policy determination process. Hence, we end up with the reverse adage: “Congress proposes, the Executive disposes.”

Case in point is the curious bidding situation for the DepEd laptops. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, while still Speaker of the House last Congress, categorically directed this particular expenditure to be done in the detailed manner which he took pains to relate. Inexplicably, what was decided by the Executive was totally irreconcilable from what was agreed on.

The ballooning administrative state. At the time of the first Philippine Republic, there were seven executive departments. Today, there are 22 requiring confirmation and several more of Cabinet rank. It is no easy task to oversee, police, monitor the actions of an ever inflating bureaucracy. Tension between the branches becomes inevitable and has characterized the relations through the years.

We wrote about this friction last October, in our column entitled “Managing or meddling,” based on a widespread grievance that Congress has already been engaging in micromanaging. In the US, the lament is that agencies attend to mission-related efforts only half the time because they are complying with all the oversight requirements, exhausting time and resources not included in the original item appropriations for their offices.

Time to shine. But there are really only a handful of congressmen and senators with the inclination and expertise to seriously pursue this function. They are the ones that step up at every hearing. Whether scrutiny or investigation, this kind of service will require hours of focused study and meticulous attention to detail.

For the bulk of congressional output, Congress has the tendency to “pass it and forget it,” according to congressional scholar Walter Oleszek. Ambassador to the Court of St. James and former Makati Representative Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. wrote: “[n]o sooner is a law begotten than it is forgotten.”

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