Beyond rightsizing government, President Marcos must build state capacity
The Manila Times
First word AT the stroke of midnight today, August 13, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will have been in office for 44 days (interrupted only by his recent days in quarantine after testing positive for Covid a second time). In this brief time, well short of the targeted 100-day honeymoon, Mr. Marcos has run a gauntlet of challenges and events that are normally experienced by a president during a full presidential term. Consider: First, in just one month in the presidency, the President has vetoed (declined to sign) five legislative measures that were passed by the defunct 18th Congress. Second, the President has overseen his first natural disaster, a magnitude 7 quake that jolted Abra province and surrounding provinces in Northern Luzon. He visited Abra, and coordinated the relief and recovery efforts by various national agencies and local government units. Third, the President has presided over a state of crisis in the country marked by surging inflation and a threatened shortage in food and energy supplies. Fourth, the President has seen the passing of the country’s 12th president, Fidel Valdez Ramos, a family relation, and led the nation in paying him tribute and honors due him. Fifth, and finally, the President has discovered to his shock that a sub-Cabinet member of his government — an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture which he personally leads — has dared to illegally authorize (by signing the President’s name in an order) the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar. Rightsizing not enough This latter breach of presidential authority is so glaring and anomalous it will take more than a pro forma inquiry to determine what has gone wrong at the agriculture department and what it will take to clean the stables. In his July 25 State of the Nation Address, the President spoke of rightsizing the government bureaucracy as a major priority of his administration. The problems and developments over the past 44-day highlight the fact that rightsizing will not be enough to correct the weaknesses in government. The administration must match its activities with its capabilities. Now, the administration must seek to build state capacity to resolve problems and raise public confidence in state institutions. Significantly, contemporary political theory and development studies have identified state-building as an activity as important as nation-building to a republic. Francis Fukuyama, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins and author of The End of History, made governance and world order the subject of his 2005 book State Building (Profile Books, Restbritin, 2005). Government’s activities must match its activities with its capabilities. Building state capacity must involve raising the legitimacy and effectiveness of state institutions by freeing regulatory agencies from the control of interest groups and enabling them to act autonomously. Our ramshackle democracy needs reorganization and reform. The civil service must restore dignity and public respect. President’s veto power In a focused exercise of presidential veto power, President Marcos has vetoed five bills that were passed by the previous 18th Congress. First, he vetoed three bills: a measure creating the Bulacan Airport City Special Economic Zone and Freeport; a measure strengthening the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel; and a measure expanding the franchise of the Davao Light and Power Company. He vetoed two more bills from the 18th Congress: a measure that would exempt from income tax honoraria of people who volunteered during the elections; and a measure creating the Philippine Transportation Safety Board (PTSB). Marcos thumbed down House Bill 9651 and Senate Bill 2520, which would have granted the income tax exemption. The veto message explained that it is contrary to Republic Act 10963 or the “Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act.” The Department of Finance in the previous administration also expressed the same position when it opposed the proposed legislation. Marcos declined to sign House Bill 9030 and Senate Bill 1077 creating the PTSB, since it would have the same functions as the agencies under the Department of Transportation as well as the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation. “Creating a new body (PTSB) will only create functional duplication, confusion as to authority, ineffectiveness and deficiency in the performance of the responsibilities,” the Palace explained. Black hole of public administration In his book on state building, Fukuyama deplored what he called the “black hole of public administration.” It is an expressive metaphor for what ails government in weak states, and dims the government bureaucracy. The term in astronomy referring to a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that nothing, not even light, can escape from them, has come to be used to describe a dark and seemingly inescapable state or situation. Malacañang on Thursday said “heads will roll” as it probed the issuance of what it called an illegal resolution authorizing the importation of an additional 300,000 metric tons of sugar on top of what was imported last May. The importation approved in Sugar Order 4, which was signed for President Marcos by an official of the Agriculture department, was uploaded on the website of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) last Wednesday, but has since been taken down after the Palace announced on the same day that the President had rejected the proposal to import. Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles told a press briefing that Marcos, as chairman of the SRA’s Sugar Board, did not authorize any meeting for the adoption of any resolution to import sugar. “This resolution is illegal…. The resolution was issued in the President’s name; it was signed for the President by Undersecretary Sebastian. Such signing was not authorized by the President,” Cruz-Angeles said. “His [Sebastian] assignment as the alternate of the President is merely to be present in those meetings which the President cannot attend. It is not a delegation of authority to call any meetings or to sign any resolutions in the absence of the President’s awareness that such a resolution is to be issued,” she added. Sen. Imee Marcos, the President’s sister, issued a statement deploring the “unauthorized and fraudulent” use of the President’s office to justify the importation of sugar. She said it was proof that “smugglers are lording it over at the Department of Agriculture (DA).” The senator urged the President to move the department’s top officials and “dismantle criminal syndicates within the government.” Citing information from local sugar producers, she said sugar prices have spiked to more than P100 per kilogram because imports were being cornered by leading manufacturers of sugared products, in connivance with DA officials. How did Undersecretary Sebastian pass the vetting process, and who recommended him for appointment? Alas, the Agriculture department emits no light.