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Aquino breaks up his Cabinet

In the 45 weeks since he assumed office, President Benigno Aquino III has convened a total of four meetings of the Cabinet, a crucial body which in most republican democracies serve as the head of the government’s executive committee and council of advisers.

Mr. Aquino seems so convinced that the Cabinet is a useless body or one that is so unwieldy for him that he has effectively broken it up into five parts, and may even be on the way to dissolving it in effect, through Executive Order No. 43 which he issued on May 13. It is a totally unprecedented, and radical restructuring of the Philippine presidency.

Ostensibly in order to create a more manageable, focused organization, the EO fragments the Cabinet into five “Clusters.” That’s “Cluster” with a capital C, according to the EO, thereby inventing a new type of body in the Philippine presidency. Under the EO, these are not mere coordinating entities, in the way former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo occasionally called for meetings of “clusters,” more often the specialized National Security Cluster.

The EO emphasizes that the Clusters “serve as the primary mechanism of the Executive Branch for directing all efforts” of the administration. Nowhere in the EO is reference made to Cluster decisions being presented to the Cabinet as whole.

In response to future media questions why the Cabinet isn’t meeting, Aquino or his spokesman will now reply, and correctly if the EO is to be complied with: “The meetings are all in the Clusters.”

The Clusters are those on: (1) Good Governance and Anti-Corruption, headed by Mr. Aquino himself, with seven Cabinet members; (2) Human Development and Poverty Reduction headed by the social welfare secretary, with 12 members; (3) Economic Development headed by the finance secretary, with 10 members; (4) Security, Justice and Peace headed by the executive secretary, with six members; and (5) Climate Change and Mitigation headed by the environment and natural resources secretary, with 10 members

The EO in effect excludes Vice President Jejomar Binay from Mr. Aquino’s core of leadership, as it does not mention the Office of the Vice President at all. Binay is even effectively demoted, since as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, he is a member of both the Poverty Reduction Cluster and the Climate Change and Mitigation Cluster. The fact that he is the second highest-ranking official of the land is ignored: he is chair of neither Cluster, with the social welfare secretary heading the Poverty Reduction Cluster and the environment secretary chairing the Climate Change Cluster. The Vice President is in effect being ordered under the EO to report to two department secretaries.

Former Sen. Mar Roxas has admirably taken on a huge task as the new transportation secretary. However, with EO 43, he would have to forget his wish to be in the inner core of Mr. Aquino’s presidency. The transportation secretary is just one of 11 members of the Economic Development Cluster, chaired, a bit ironically, by Finance Secretary Cesar Purisma whose career in government is entirely due to Roxas.

Under the EO, all Cabinet members except the Cluster heads will report not to the President but to their respective Cluster chair. The incoming transportation secretary, Mr. Aquino’s running mate in the 2010 elections, will therefore be reporting to Purisima.

Other than one-on-one meetings and telephone conversations, Cabinet meetings serve as a department head’s means of communicating with the President and providing inputs to the administration’s policies, including those not related to his department. This will no longer be the case under EO 43.

Rather than just being a collection of heads of departments, the Cabinet was evolved by republican democracies (including ours) as the president’s core of advisers, and the equivalent of a corporation’s executive committee. Mr. Aquino has demolished this crucial set-up utilized by all presidents.

That the EO may have been the result of sloppy job is reflected in three boo-boos:

  1. The Commission on Information and Communications Technology to which the DOTC in 2004 transferred all authority and responsibility involving communications is not assigned to any of the Clusters.
  2. The secretariat of the Security Cluster, headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, is the National Security Council. But the President heads the council. The EO demotes the President to head of the secretariat of Ochoa’s Cluster.
  3. There is no such official as “Secretary, National Economic and Development Authority” as specified in the EO. What we have is a secretary for socio-economic Planning. The President chairs the Neda, which has a director-general.

Under the EO, several Cabinet secretaries will find their time consumed by endless meetings. For instance, the interior and local government secretary, who already has a dozen offices under him, the biggest of which is the National Police, and who has to oversee over 100 local government entities, is a member of all five Clusters, and therefore has to attend to so many meetings.

What is likely to happen is that department secretaries, especially since the President isn’t in the Cluster meetings (except for the Governance Cluster), will gradually ask their undersecretaries to attend them. The undersecretaries would most likely later on ask their assistant secretaries to represent them. In a few months, only lower ranking officials would attend the meetings of Mr. Aquino’s “primary mechanism” for governance, with everyone knowing that the meetings are a waste of time since they cannot give their own inputs and are there only as stenographers to their department secretaries.

The crucial body in the Executive Branch of government, the Cabinet will by then be in effect dissolved, perhaps to be replaced by a kitchen cabinet, or in this case a shooting-range cabinet.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer