When a senator’s wish becomes command
ON THE CONTRARY ANTONIO CONTRERAS
The Manila Times
SHE is wellknown for berating and scolding people, including government officials who are simply doing their jobs. Sen. Cynthia Villar has publicly excoriated resource persons who have the misfortune of displeasing her in committee hearings. She once demeaned the important role research plays in public governance. Recently, she lamented the hapless state of our local fertilizer industry as she opposed fertilizer importation. Yet, this is a situation that can be remedied by a vigorous support for research on organic farming. There are many politicians who, just because they are elected, sincerely believe that they have the God-given right to act like they are naturally intelligent and all the rest of us are stupid. They bully resource persons, openly implying they are inferior, or even worse, corrupt. What is unnerving is when senators or members of the House have a bad hair day, and throw a tantrum, or when they just want to show off and grandstand, that otherwise rational policies are derailed, deserving nominees are bypassed, and innocent and competent officials are labeled as corrupt. In a recent budget hearing in the Senate, officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) drew the ire of Villar, and the consequence was the suspension of the issuance of tenure instruments pursuant to Department Administrative Order (DAO) 2022-10, Series of 2022, issued on May 30, 2022 by thenEnvironment Secretary Jim Sampulna. The intent of the DAO was to delegate the approval of these instruments to the DENR regional executive directors (REDs). In response to a question by Villar on why approval was delegated to the REDs, one of the DENR undersecretaries said this was in line with the intent to facilitate the process of doing business. It was at this point that Villar turned ballistic. She harangued the DENR officials, including Secretary Maria Antonio Yulo-Loyzaga, on why DENR was allowing business operations in forest lands. Realizing that they were in a very vulnerable situation, where the DENR budget was at stake, and to pacify Villar, Yulo-Loyzaga promised to evaluate the policy, and that its implementation would be suspended. On October 26, Yulo-Loyzaga issued a memorandum to that effect. It is most unfortunate that YuloLoyzaga did not assert the rationality of the assailed DAO, although it would have been difficult for her to do so, and avoid further offending Villar. This is the tragic outcome when senators abuse their power over the purse. They badger government officials to change policy direction, or in this case, suspend the implementation of an otherwise rational policy. Government agencies’ budget are held hostage and doing the bidding of the politicians is the ransom government officials have to pay. Unfortunately, Villar’s ranting and raving against DAO 22 was oblivious to two important policy realities. First, she forgot that part of good governance is the principle of subsidiarity, where important decisions such as granting of tenure are delegated to officials who are closer to the ground. This is the very essence of the move when power was devolved to the local government units. It is noteworthy to mention that this also aligns with the intent of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to empower local level officials. Second, Villar apparently failed to realize that, in fact, the very essence of granting usufruct rights to juridical persons even in forest lands is to enable the generation of income for the recipient of the tenure instrument. The 1987 Constitution stipulated this clearly when it enumerated the different modalities in which private entities can be allowed to conduct business activities in relation to natural resources. Section 2 of Article XII of the 1987 Constitution states: “The exploration, development and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State. The State may directly undertake such activities, or it may enter into co-production, joint venture, or production-sharing agreements with Filipino citizens, or corporations or associations at least sixty percentum of whose capital is owned by such citizens. Such agreements may be for a period not exceeding twentyfive years, renewable for not more than twenty-five years, and under such terms and conditions as may be provided by law.” The DENR should have been more assertive in correcting Villar’s misunderstanding of the very principle that underpins the long-established tenure system in the country, and her lack of appreciation of the enabling benefits of decentralizing decision-making processes. It is simply enraging that one senator’s action can affect a well-established practice. More fundamental is Villar’s seeming distrust toward the regional environment officials, that somehow it is risky to entrust them with important decisions. This is, however, not the first time that Senator Villar has demeaned and diminished civil servants. She has a long track record of talking down to invited resource persons whose technical expertise in their respective disciplines are far more extensive than her knowledge of agriculture and the environment, which are the committees which she chairs. It looks like Senator Villar failed to do her homework, and an entire government bureaucracy had to bend over backwards to appease her. And she is not alone in this. We can always recall the time when the entire University of the Philippines (UP) system reexamined its mode of teaching simply because Sen. Pia Cayetano, who had issues with online learning, threatened to hold up the UP’s budget. Cayetano practically undermined UP’s freedom to determine how to teach its students without external pressure. These senators are not above everyone else. They are technically mere instruments to further public interest. They are our servants. We vote them in, and we can vote them out. They owe their positions to people like us. We pay their salaries. They are not in any way more intelligent or rational. They have the same rights as we have. They are not perfect. In fact, this imperfection is revealed when the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Senate committed grave abuse of discretion when it cited in contempt and ordered the arrest of Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. executives Lincoln Ong and Michael Yang Hong Ming.