Almendras’ crown of thorns
The appointment of Jose Rene Almendras as Cabinet Secretary crowns him with a glorified title and loads him with plenty of work, but with nebulous powers vis-à-vis the traditional alter ego of the President—the Executive Secretary.
He leaves the Department of Energy—to which he was appointed in 2010—with lots of unfinished business to provide adequate power to drive the industrialization of Mindanao, the country’s “land of promise.” During his watch at the department, Mindanao experienced a rolling power shortage reminiscent of the energy crisis faced by President Fidel Ramos’ administration, which inherited the problem from the administration of President Cory Aquino, the incumbent President’s mother. The Mindanao crisis triggered calls from the political and business leaders and common people of the island to sack Almendras.
Reputed to be close to the President, Almendras was retained at his post, and the President defied the clamor to dismiss his nonperforming energy secretary. The crisis heightened and last April, the President called a summit in Davao City to seek a solution to the worsening power outages. Instead of offering measures to solve the crisis, the President shocked the summit participants when he said that “the era of cheap electricity in Mindanao is coming to an end.”
He said, “The simple truth is: You will have to pay more.” Consumers in Mindanao will have to pay more “because this is the reality of economics, not the rhetoric of politics.” Paying a little more for energy will enable Mindanao to have a stable supply of power for the future of the region, the President said. The summit participants believed that this was the formula recommended by Almendras. The President chided the summit participants for making Almendras the “whipping boy” for the crisis. He saved Almendras from the sack, but he lost Mindanao, which was all up in arms against his policy. Since then, Almendras’ exit from the DOE had been deemed only a matter of time. He had ceased to serve as the President’s point man in Mindanao,
It did not, therefore, come as a surprise when the President signed on Oct. 31 Executive Order No. 99, kicking Almendras upstairs to head a renovated office named Secretary to the Cabinet with ill-defined functions. The Palace drummed up the appointment as giving Almendras a powerful role in the administration. On closer examination, Almendras appeared to have been invested with a crown of thorns in the Aquino style of cronyism.
According to Inquirer news reports, under the EO, Almendras was cloaked with powers “to implement his 16-point agenda and the Philippine Development Plan up to June 2016,” the end of Mr. Aquino’s term. He is described as implementor of the administration’s projects roadmap “without clipping the powers of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.”
He will hold office in Malacañang, and will report directly to the President, giving the impression that he is in the center of power and has access to the President. These are also so designed that he is busy doing so many things.
“The Cabinet Secretary will be in charge of monitoring and making sure that the projects under the roadmap are implemented on time,” said one Palace spokesperson, among many others.
Under the EO, the other functions of the Cabinet Secretary are to: recommend to the President annual detailed and measurable performance and projects roadmap to facilitate target outputs against priorities in coordination with various agencies; ensure the timely execution and monitor the impact of targets under the annual performance and projects roadmap and realign targets where needed; represent the President at meetings to expedite interagency action toward achievement of the performance and projects roadmap.
According to the matrix designed by the administration, the Cabinet Secretary’s mandate has to do with policy—the integration and implementation of the administration’s programs.
The Executive Secretary’s mandate, on the other hand, is administrative in nature: to respond to the “specific needs and requirements of the President.”
The Presidential Management Staff (PMS) is directly responsible for providing staff assistance in the presidential exercise of overall management of the development process, according to the matrix. From all these verbose definitions of functions and jurisdictions, one easily gets the impression that the matrix is designed to prevent these Palace busybodies from colliding with one another, especially Almendras and Ochoa. According to Almendras, he sees his job as overseeing the ins and outs of 20 departments, but he himself does not hold any Cabinet portfolio. He holds the title of general, but he has no troops to command. He is just an innocuous coordinator.
The Secretary to the Cabinet is not a new office. It was created in 1987 during the Cory Aquino administration. It was held by Ricardo Saludo under the Arroyo administration before he was appointed head of the Civil Service Commission.
Almendras explained his role in the renovated setup: “Mine is a staff position, so it doesn’t conflict with any of the line positions,” he said. “The line positions are very clear. The PMS …, the Office of the Executive Secretary—those are line functions. Cabinet Secretary is a staff function.”