Presidential assistants in aid of elections

Move over, Mr. Palengke, your poll ratings are hopeless and you’ve got a bad habit of putting your foot in your mouth, even your golf shoe, as it were. Let’s try Mr. Rehab. But with that “czar” recently whining about his job, let’s try Mr. Farmer.

That must have been in President Aquino’s mind these days.

You can’t blame Aquino from desperately scrambling now to get somebody—anybody—in his camp to develop a fighting chance for the 2016 elections. With the lives he’s wrecked, with the laws he’s violated such as juggling government funds (think “DAP”), accepting (think “Porsche”) and giving (think “pork-barrel”) bribes, Aquino has to make sure that the next president will give him protection.

In our very flawed system of democracy, the very first requisite is for a candidate for a national post is to have name-recall, especially because Filipinos have very short memories. (The second requisite is to have ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s support, or at least neutrality to your bid. The third is to have an oligarch or group of oligarchs to bankroll your campaign.)

That’s why Lucky Sperm Club members and actors get to be senators: Aquino, the Cayetanos, Recto, Poe, Marcos, Guingona, the Estradas, Angara, Recto, Osmeña, Binay, and Pimentel, Lapid, Revilla, and Sotto. Add to that the name-recall of coup-plotters—Honasan and Trillanes. Count them: these make up 80 percent of our senators.

Not planting, but election season, starts. No salakot to hide his face of course: national artist Amorsolo’s iconic bucolic scene, “Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano” (1949). Inset: Presidential Assistant for Agriculture Francis Pangilinan’s August 2013 photo accompanying, the puff piece on him, in the Philippine Star.

Not planting, but election season, starts. No salakot to hide his face of course: national artist Amorsolo’s iconic bucolic scene, “Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano” (1949). Inset: Presidential Assistant for Agriculture Francis Pangilinan’s August 2013 photo accompanying, the puff piece on him, in the Philippine Star.

But Panfilo Lacson and Francis Pangilinan—two of his closest allies Aquino thinks has some chance of winning the two highest offices in 2016—had fast been losing that name-recall qualification after they stepped down as senators in July last year.

The solution: Aquino appoints them Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery and Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization, respectively. Now they’ll be regulars at the televised Malacañang briefings, and all they need to do is to think up of good quotes, such as Pangilinan’s “I’ll clean up DA.” Malacañang though is reportedly wrestling whether the tandem would be called in 2016 the Lacson-Pangilinan (LP, which would highlight the Liberal Party) or Pangilinan-Lacson (PaLa), to emphasize Pangilinan’s farmer imaging), or the more catchy Ping-Kiko (Ping-Ki) team.

Lacson of course jumped at Aquino’s offer for him to be the presidential main man for the rehabilitation of areas hit by the super-typhoon Yolanda, even if he had little experience in working in a bureaucracy where you can’t just order people around, with your armed bodyguards by your side.

Now five months after his appointment, he hasn’t even been given an office, and says that he has to rely on “private-sector” friends. He’s been whining he doesn’t have enough authority, that two powerful Cabinet members—“not me,” interior secretary Mar Roxas says—are snubbing him.

Pangilinan’s appointment, though, appears to have been planned, the culmination of an amateurishly obvious PR campaign.

Pangilinan’s puff pieces
Starting August, Pangilinan suddenly became the subject of glowing puff pieces by nearly every puff-writer in the country as the “senator-turned-farmer” who’s happy to leave the word of dirty politics. Even First Sister Kris Aquino devoted an entire TV program to “Kiko the Farmer.” The biggest newspapers featured the “lawmaker-turned-farmer,” complete with Pangilinan in supposedly farmer’s shirt and boots. The main photo in Pangilinan’s website depicts him in that iconic “planting rice” pose from national artist Fernando Amorsolo’s bucolic paintings.

And then his cliché of a tweet, when his appointment was announced: “I’ve been enjoying a quiet farmer’s life. But duty calls.”

Lacson’s and Pangilinan’s appointments as presidential assistants—to help them build up name recall for the 2016 elections (either as president or vice presidential candidates)—would be just hilarious projects of a desperate lame-duck president if their assignments didn’t involve the lives of millions of Filipinos. And if we taxpayers weren’t paying for it.

They were given the rank of Cabinet secretaries, which means they’d be receiving salaries and other forms of compensation of about P2 million yearly, not bad for responding to the call of duty. As secretaries, they would staff and operating expenses that would easily cost us citizens P8 million. Taxpayers are therefore shouldering the expense of these two officials’ name-recall project totaling P20 million yearly.

But the bigger cost is the tremendous waste of time and manpower these two presidential assistants would inflict on the bureaucracy.

Presidential assistants or advisers are useful for presidents if they have expertise or experience in a very specialized aspect of government. They either undertake special assignments (in political affairs adviser Ronaldo Llamas’s case, as liaison to Aquino’s pay-per-demo group Akbayan) or to provide very technical advice, as is purportedly the job of Presidential Adviser for Climate Change Elisea Gozun.

But never are they given work that overlaps with those of the regular Cabinet secretaries, much less “coordinate” several departments.

To have presidential assistants as “super-Cabinet secretaries” that would coordinate other Cabinet secretaries’ work is at best an irritation for the bureaucracy, and at worst, an obstacle to effectively responding to government’s urgent tasks.

What even makes things worse is that neither Lacson nor Pangilinan has expertise in the tasks that were given them, even if the latter has done a good PR job in portraying himself in the past several months as a farmer in his and his wife Sharon’s Sweet Spring Country Farm producing herbs and organic vegetables in greenhouses in an idyllic place in Cavite.

If Aquino thinks his agriculture secretary is incompetent, or a crook, he should just fire him, and replace him with Pangilinan.

Waste of bureaucracy’s time
How Lacson has wasted, and how Pangilinan would be wasting government officials’ time would be illustrated as follows.

They would call for meetings of Cabinet secretaries to tell them they are Aquino’s alter egos. They would be lucky if they can get the Cabinet secretaries themselves, who would send their chief of staffs or undersecretaries. After a few meetings, Lacson and Pangilinan would realize that the officials who attend their meetings are not even assistant secretaries but just directors who are merely stenographers to report what transpired in the meetings. Why should Cabinet secretaries help out these “assistants” who’d just claim credit for their work?

Pangilinan has never been in the executive branch and thus he is clueless about the most important feature of power in government: If you’re not the “signing authority” (for funds), you’re just a fixture. And you can’t be running to the President day in and day when you’re ignored by the “real” Cabinet members.

To give Pangilinan some clout, Malacañang announced he would be superviing the National Food Authority, National Irrigation Administration, the Philippine Coconut Authority, and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority.

How would he? These state corporations have their own charters established by law, which a presidential order can’t rescind.

By law the chairman of the National Irrigation Administration is the secretary of the public works department, and to control the NIA, Pangilinan would have to be public works secretary. By law, the chairman of the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority is the agriculture secretary. Agriculture secretary Proceso Alcala must be laughing at Pangilinan’s braggadocio that he would clean up his department.

Pangilinan could really control the National Food Authority and the Philippine Coconut Authority as the laws creating these agencies authorize the president to appoint their administrators from wherever.

But would Aquino fire the present administrators – whose patrons are Aquino’s big political allies – so Pangilinan could take over? Or in the first place, is Pangilinan willing to take responsibility for heading these huge government corporations, so riddled with huge debt and political problems that supervising just one of them would consume all his time?

Being in charge of our backward agriculture, Pangilinan would realize soon, isn’t exactly like being lord of the manor at his Sweet Spring Country Farms, no matter how long his title is.

In his lame-duck years, Aquino has unconscionably turned the serious tasks of rescuing from misery and suffering tens of millions of Filipinos in Yolanda-ravaged areas and in poverty-stricken rural areas into mere PR opportunities to boost the name recall of two political comrades he hopes would have a fighting chance to win the highest posts in the 2016 elections.