WHEN President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. announced even before he assumed the presidency last June 30 that he would not appoint an Agriculture department secretary and instead assume that portfolio himself, I immediately expressed serious doubts in my column whether this was a wise decision.
I pointed out that while it sends a message that his administration would make agriculture a priority, in actual practice, it really means his holding two jobs, with both the presidency and the agricultural department being led by a part-time official, and therefore their performance compromised.
In fact, in the post-war period, only two presidents have headed a department, and this was only the defense portfolio, I suspect, because they wanted to make sure the military was solidly behind them. President Marcos Sr. assumed the defense post when he became president on Dec. 31, 1965. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became Defense secretary for a month in 2003 and two months to Feb. 1, 2007.
The controversy involving the Sugar Regulatory Administration’s (SRA) unauthorized order to import 300,000 MT of sugar is strong proof that Marcos’ holding the agriculture portfolio could be bad for his governance.
The only logical explanation I can think of why the SRA’s three-man sugar board dared to issue an order that they know should be cleared by the President is that they calculated that Marcos was tied down in the myriad work of running a government, and wouldn’t bother about recalling an illegal order for importation of a huge quantity of sugar.
However, Marcos’ executive secretary, Victor Rodriguez, was in close touch with the SRA and his principal, so that he knew that the President had not given any clearance to the SRA as he himself was unconvinced that such a huge quantity of sugar must be allowed to be imported.
But the root of that problem is Marcos’ holding of the agricultural portfolio. That created the situation for the SRA to dare bypass him, and on its own to issue that sugar order.
It had been obvious that Marcos couldn’t really act as Agriculture secretary because he had to attend to his other urgent tasks, and he even had to isolate himself for a few days when he got Covid-19. There was therefore no single official supervising the department on a day-to-day basis.
Realizing this problem, ES Rodriguez — I presume since it was he whom agriculture officials liaised with more often than going directly to Marcos — issued a memorandum to then-undersecretary for research Leocadio Sebastian designating him as the chief of staff of the president in his capacity as Agriculture secretary.
The memorandum gave Sebastian broad powers over the department, including such authority reserved to the Agriculture secretary as to “sit as ex-officio chairman or member of all duly constituted committees, councils, boards or bodies” where the secretary is the chairman or a member of.
Thus, Sebastian justified his signing for the President Sugar Order 4, even if Marcos had not authorized him to do so, thinking that memorandum gave him the power to do so. Sebastian claims it was an honest mistake. But Malacañang officials know that as a longtime official in government, he knows he cannot do this, but did so anyway to preempt Marcos’ decision.
ES Rodriguez disclosed that Sebastian knew he couldn’t sign the order unless the President specifically asked him to do it through him as executive secretary. He pointed out that there were several instances in the past when Sebastian sought the President’s clearance on certain decisions to be made by the SRA but since there was no reply from him, Sebastian did not act on these.
What makes me suspicious though are reports that sugar traders who had hoarded the commodity are losing hundreds of millions in inventory cost, but can release these stocks only under the cover of an SRA order authorizing the 300,000 MT. They therefore needed the sugar order as soon as possible.
If Marcos had not assumed the agricultural post, it would have been his designated Agriculture secretary who would have signed the order, after a categorical approval of the President. He would have known that he would be kicked out of his Cabinet-level post ignominiously if he ignored the President in such a crucial government decision.
Marcos is unnecessarily risking his popular support in being Agriculture secretary himself, as that department is seen by the public as the lead agency in ensuring food prices, especially for the rice staple. He himself says there is an impending food crisis in the next two quarters. If such crisis does break-out, over factors beyond his control, for instance if the Ukraine war intensifies, it would be him who would be blamed. By being department secretary, Marcos has chosen to be the lightning rod in the coming storm over food prices. Is that wise?
If sugar prices go up in the following months, even to the point of soft drink bottlers unable to get the sweetener they need or housewives shocked at the tripling of its cost at the supermarket, it would be blamed on Marcos. Of course, as President, he will also be blamed, but not as intensely as he will be since he is the SRA chairman.
For the President to take on the job of heading a department could be like the captain of a passenger airplane taking on “concurrently” the job of flight engineer. As his attention would be divided, both tasks would suffer, with potentially fatal consequences for scores of airline passengers. That is not how a passenger airliner is designed, and there is even a first officer in the cockpit. To have the president as department secretary is not how the executive branch is designed.
Already, sources at the Agriculture department say the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries have lost their zest for their work, as they feel they have to get approval of all their moves and projects from the Agriculture secretary — who is, of course, more often in Malacañang.
“In agri, there has been this culture that officials can just go to the secretary at any time in case they need to get his approval for something. But how can they do this now if Marcos is at the department just once or twice a week, and spends hardly half a day there,” a veteran official said. Instead of raising the morale of the officials at the department, Marcos may have dampened it, with people there not liking the message, intended or not, that he’s there because he can’t trust anyone there, or that he thinks only he can do the job of department secretary.
If his justification is that he wants to be sure that the Agriculture department is swiftly reformed to be an efficient organization to develop our agriculture, all he needs to do is to have his Agriculture secretary and other top officials of the department report to him in person every week, perhaps on a Saturday, so they can spend more time at the department.
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