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Commentary

Federalism and ‘Imperial Manila’

FEDERALISM IS the mighty weapon that will break down “Imperial Manila”!

This rallying call is axiomatic. No wonder then that they never bother to provide the specifics of this “empire” in Metro Manila. Interestingly, three decisions by the Supreme Court actually provide some enlightenment on the extent of its dominion.

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First, the landmark case of Marcos vs Manglapus where it was ruled that the executive authority of the president is all-encompassing and absolute:

“The powers of the President are not limited to what are expressly enumerated in the article on the Executive Department and in scattered provisions of the Constitution. This is so, notwithstanding the avowed intent of the members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 to limit the powers of the President as a reaction to the abuses under the regime of Mr. Marcos, for the result was a limitation of specific power of the President, particularly those relating to the commander-in-chief clause, but not a diminution of the general grant of executive power.” (G.R. No. 88211, Oct. 27, 1989)

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Second, the case of Carpio vs Executive Secretary where the Doctrine of Qualified Political Agency or the “alter-ego of the President” principle was explained and the notion of a “single executive” was further affirmed:

“Under this doctrine, which recognizes the establishment of a single executive, all executive and administrative organizations are adjuncts of the Executive Department, the heads of the various executive departments are assistants and agents of the Chief Executive, and, except in cases where the Chief Executive is required by the Constitution or law to act in person or the exigencies of the situation demand that he act personally, the multifarious executive and administrative functions of the Chief Executive are performed by and through the executive departments, and the acts of the Secretaries of such departments, performed and promulgated in the regular course of business, are, unless disapproved or reprobated by the Chief Executive, presumptively the acts of the Chief Executive.” (G.R. No. 96409, Feb. 14, 1992)

Third, the case of Pimentel vs Aguirre which confirmed the enduring practice of top-down economic development planning despite its obvious inconsistency to the constitutional prescription of local autonomy, and thus further entrenching the supremacy of the central apparatus in the overall management of government:

“But to enable the country to develop as a whole, the programs and policies effected locally must be integrated and coordinated towards a common national goal. Thus, policy-setting for the entire country still lies in the President and Congress.” (G.R. No. 132988, July 19, 2000)

These rulings all sum up to the reality that practically all public service mandates intersect at the Office of the President. Consequently, we continue to be burdened with an overcentralized government structure.

Indeed, the imperial character of Metro Manila is but a manifestation of the fact that since colonial times we have placed our collective fate on the skills and caprices of the official occupant of Malacañang.

The net effect of this anomaly was articulated eloquently by its current lord, President Duterte, in his inauguration speech: “Erosion of faith and trust in government—that is the real problem that confronts us. Resulting therefrom, I see the erosion of the people’s trust in our country’s leaders; the erosion of faith in our judicial system; the erosion of confidence in the capacity of our public servants to make the people’s lives better, safer and healthier.”

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Therefore, the federalization of the Philippines should, at the very least, entail a redesign of executive power. This means moving away from the notion of a “single” and “all-compassing” executive branch. Accordingly, the duties covered by this state authority should be clearly allocated between the central and local bureaucracies.

Obviously, there are government functions which cannot be devolved to local governments. Usually these pertain to matters that require uniform and nationwide regulation, such as national defense, foreign affairs, currency, postage and so forth.

On the other hand, there are functions that are clearly appropriate for subnational governments, such as preservation of heritage and cultural sites, environment protection, and management of public land areas reserved for leisure and recreation. As a rule of thumb, these are duties that can be exercised within the territorial jurisdiction of the local government without encroaching on adjoining localities.

But there are public mandates in between these two poles which can be allocated to either of the two levels of government, such as police and education. This is the area where deliberation is most crucial.

The point to remember is that the division of functions has to be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want a distribution scheme that leaves everybody clueless as to which government office can be held answerable for our dissatisfaction. Neither do we want overlapping designations that allow government agents to pass the blame for failure to deliver public services to our satisfaction.

Furthermore, to shed the president’s “imperial” image, his or her general supervision power over local government should no longer be retained. The conventional view that local governments are mere “agents” of the national government is outdated. The more appropriate civil law analogy to characterize relations between the two levels of government is that in the pursuit of national development, they actually should form a partnership.

One solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. This undertaking is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the subnational level, but it is also about a shared responsibility of shaping the future of the whole country.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in its May 2014 report, “All on board: making inclusive growth happen”:

“Yet, effective decentralization for inclusive growth requires a solid whole-of-government coordination and a clear division of responsibilities for the actions taken at the different levels of government.”

To conclude, diffusing or decentralizing executive authority should be a main component in any proposed federal design. But given Malacañang’s long-held chokehold on the powers of the state, expect the deconstruction of the imperial throne in Manila to leave a bloody trail of casualties.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.

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