POSTSCRIPT / September 1, 2020 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Executive caretaker or chosen survivor?

INSTEAD of assigning a “designated survivor” to carry us through a hypothetical succession crisis, we see more urgency in forming an executive caretaker team to act quickly on real problems as President Duterte grapples with his health issues.

The proposal of Sen. Panfilo Lacson for a designated survivor is not meant to pick in advance the President’s successor if he is permanently unable to perform his duties and powers. Filling such a vacancy or disability is already covered under Art. VII, Sec. 8, of the Constitution.

The survivor in Lacson’s bill (SB 982) pertains to the official to be pre-selected to take over when all those in the line of succession from the Vice President down to the Senate President and the House Speaker are physically eliminated or unable to succeed to the presidency.

An example of such an imaginary crisis is when the President goes to the Congress to deliver his State of the Nation Address and the site is bombed or attacked, resulting in his death or permanent incapacity together with all his would-be successors – thus leaving a leadership void.

With all the ordained successors wiped out, the designated survivor who is secured in a secret location away from the Congress could then spring to action and ensure the continuity of government responses and operations.

For constitutional basis of his proposal, Lacson points to Art. VII, Sec. 7 which says: “xxx Congress shall, by law, provide for the manner in which one who is to act as President shall be selected until a President or a Vice President shall have qualified, in case of death, permanent disability, or inability of the officials mentioned in the next preceding paragraph.”

We think, however, that more damaging than a theoretical terrorist attack during the yearly SONA is the current paralysis resulting from an ailing President’s inability to respond effectively to the double whammy of the pandemic and the recession.

With a more creative application of the law, the President and the Congress should form an emergency team functioning as a sort of “caretaker president” to address for the Chief Executive the problems aggravated by his inability to react fast and systematically enough.

We cannot just watch people dying from coronavirus disease and prolonged starvation. A better-planned response by the government is still being awaited by the millions who have lost their means of livelihood, aside from their dignity and civil liberties.

A small team – possibly composed of the Vice President (who after all is the duly elected No.2 executive) and two or three Cabinet secretaries — could be designated to act collegially in the name of the President.

We understand the reluctance of Duterte to take an extended vacation and allow a Cabinet group led by VP Leni Robredo to address the crisis, but partisan politics and personal ill-feelings cannot be allowed to stand in the way.

A snapshot of the crisis shows over 217,000 COVID-19 cases (No. 1 in ASEAN); a negative 16.5-percent Gross Domestic Product in the 2nd quarter; 7.5 million jobs lost; 26 percent of businesses closed; hunger stalking millions; and the President saying funds are running low.

Note that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of neighboring Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has resigned because of his recurring ulcerative colitis. Ulcers are not as complicated as the multiple ailments so far admitted by Duterte as afflicting him.

The doubt over Duterte’s health cannot be dispelled by having an aide claim that he is as strong as a carabao, by showing a picture of him still able to go to the dining table, or by airing a brief video of him talking to some Cabinet members and reading documents.

The crisis worsens with no viable solution being offered. The nation drifts or sinks while everybody waits for the President to rise from his sickbed, to emerge from his “perpetual isolation”, and start working full-time.

An affected party could just go to the Supreme Court to challenge Duterte’s capacity to discharge the powers and duties of his office. The issues, alas, could be represented as more legal and political than medical – and with that, we can almost see the verdict.

Forming a caretaker team to attack the urgent problems could forestall such a formal court challenge to the President’s capacity to do his job, and help temper the clamor for Robredo to actively help out as Acting President.

Duterte is likely to defeat such a challenge at the SC. But the attendant public debate could be so bitter and politicized that it would divide the nation deeper instead of uniting it, and aggravate the crisis of confidence in the administration instead of dissipating it.

For the proposed crisis team, btw, our asking around showed preference, in random order, for Secretaries Teodoro Locsin (foreign affairs), Delfin Lorenzana (national defense), Carlos Dominguez (finance), Menardo Guevarra (justice), and Arthur Tugade (transportation).

In the US, the line of succession goes from the President to the Vice President, the House Speaker, the Senate President Pro Tempore, to the Secretary of State, then down to the other Cabinet secretaries in the order of when their departments were created.

As for the “designated survivor” idea, they have in the US the Presidential Succession Act adopted in 1947. For Trump’s last State of the Union address on Feb. 4, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, although eighth in the line of succession, was the designated survivor.

On the side, there is the US political TV drama series “Designated Survivor” that aired on ABC for two seasons then moved to Netflix. Kiefer Sutherland stars as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Thomas Kirkman, the designated survivor who was thrust to the presidency after an explosion destroys the Capitol Building on the night of the State of the Union, killing the president and everyone in the line of succession.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 1, 2020)

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