The belated confirmation of three Cabinet secretaries this week—four long years after they were first named to their posts—has temporarily obscured the problem that lies at the heart of the Commission on Appointments’ system. It will become obvious again, however, as soon as Congress returns next month. The CA has become a members’ club, where the interests of its members are placed ahead of everyone else’s.
This was the same problem that defined the CA in the years before martial law, except for one substantial difference. Today, the CA, a special constitutional body composed of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress, actively undermines its role in the Constitution’s elaborate infrastructure of checks and balances.
To be sure, CA members have justified their objections to some of the appointees in check-and-balance terms. But four years to confirm someone like Justice Secretary Leila de Lima or Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman? No CA member ever attempted a full-scale campaign to force President Aquino to de-nominate De Lima or Soliman (or even Environment Secretary Ramon Paje); instead, those who did not like the secretary-designates found other ways to delay or defer confirmation.
If something truly disqualifying had been discovered in the last four years (say, hypothetically, that De Lima had taken part in voter fraud in her election law practice, or that Soliman cannot account for millions of pesos disbursed through the Conditional Cash Transfer program), then we would have joined our voice to the clamor to replace them. But there has been no such discovery. Indeed, the main factor behind the delay in their confirmation (Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago versus Soliman, for instance, or Sen. Jinggoy Estrada versus De Lima) seems to be mere personal animus.
De Lima and Soliman (and other appointees only belatedly confirmed) are not beyond reproach; they are certainly vulnerable to criticism. But the Executive’s appointing power was not meant to nominate perfect candidates, but only qualified officials who enjoy the President’s full trust and will implement his policies. The Rules of the CA stipulate that the commission is driven by “only one impelling motive, which is the efficient and harmonious functioning of the government.”
Even if we give the CA the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that it can bypass an appointment, the repeated renomination of the appointee should properly be read as a signal to extend the same benefit of the doubt to the President as nominator. After all, he is forming his Cabinet, and the CA is bound, according to its own Rules, to “accord the nomination or appointment weight and respect, to the end that all doubts should be resolved in of approval or confirmation.”
What emerged from last week’s committee-level hearing at the CA, when Estrada questioned De Lima intensely, was the sense of entitlement that marks the members of this exclusive club. Letter-writer Romulo Macalintal noted Estrada’s outrageous suggestion, for instance, that De Lima should have “approached” each of the members, because it was “tradition.” Imagine that. When a nominee refuses to cheapen the process by knocking on doors and calling on each of the members, the members themselves see it as an affront.
No wonder a broken system failed to confirm someone like Jesse Robredo.
The decision of Chair Grace Pulido Tan of the Commission on Audit to vie for a seat in the Supreme Court reflects an ambition familiar to all lawyers; an appointment to the highest court in the land is the highest honor for any member of the bar. But Tan’s decision also leaves an uncomfortable impression.
It is not so much that Tan plays a key role in the resolution of the biggest political scandal in decades and it will be hard to find a replacement; we are confident that equally competent auditors of unimpeachable integrity can step immediately into her shoes. The problem is, when she finds herself in the headlines again, she is no longer simply the COA chief but one of the favored candidates for a Supreme Court seat.
We do not believe that she sets out to generate news headlines to support her candidacy; that is beneath her. But every time she talks about issuing notices of disallowance to lawmakers implicated in the pork barrel scam, or revealing anomalous transactions in the closing days of the previous administration, she opens herself to criticism that she is currying favor with the appointing power.
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