The term “Relevant President” is an inversion of a point first made by Antonio Montalvan 2nd in his column in The Philippine Inquirer (“An Irrelevant President” 17 November 2013). His stirring piece hit the core of the Yolanda tragedy. And he concluded it with these words:
“We honor all those who have died in this heart-rending calamity. We honor each and everyone who now wake up to another day of sorrow they will have to live with for the rest of their lives . . . The whole world’s humanity, now converging in the Philippines, honors them. Never mind if the most powerful man in the Philippines has not. He does not matter now. He has begun to reveal his irrelevance. He no longer is our leader.”
Whatever Mr. Aquino is now, he is not leading in the increasingly bitter and volatile struggle against the looming power rate hike in Metro Manila and Central Luzon
Doing his best Pontius Pilate impersonation, Aquino says he has no power and can do nothing to stop the rate hike.
He hides behind the excuse that the Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the rate hike, is an independent agency that is not under the Office of the President or the Department of Energy.
Through his clueless deputy spokesman Abigail Valte, he issued the innocuous suggestion that consumers should seek relief in court, and the empty gesture of instructing Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla to look into what can be done about the issue.
This is the extent of Malacañang engagement in the issue even as damning evidence has piled up indicating that the government has slept on the job, that there may be collusion between the power plant producers and electricity distributors, and that the fallout on the economy could be as severe as that of a typhoon.
PCCI vice president for energy and utilities Jose Alejandro says the government was already aware last year that the Malampaya gas field would have to be closed for maintenance, but, it did nothing to address the problem.
Some in Congress and the private sector say there is need to review the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001, perhaps even rescind it.
There are also calls for Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla to resign for his failure to avert the power rate hike. “Secretary Petilla should concentrate on how to lower power rates and not on being a spokesman for the power cartel,” says one party-list congressman.
The simultaneous shutdown of power plants as trigger for a huge increase in electricity rates, is seen as an old tactic employed by a powerful cartel operating in the country. Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate sees a pattern in the “synchronized” shutdown of several plants starting from 2011.
The Malampaya outage “has become an annual event and the consumers are always the victims and at the losing end. This is nothing but a modus operandi of a cartelized industry and the Aquino administration is not doing anything as it is apparently becoming its protector instead,” he adds
In sum, the problems and issues behind the power rate hike are multiple and complex. And it will take nothing less than a total and determined effort to solve it. It needs a leader.
A serious and relevant President will not wash his hands of the problem. He will lead in addressing it, and he will not stop working until the problem is solved.
To understand how a serious leader would act in this or a similar situation, it is instructive to study how the great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tackled effectively a thorny power crisis during his time.
Roosevelt and the power issue
I will quote Roosevelt at length because he clearly outlined how a regulation commission should do its work and how to put a utility tycoon in his place. He wrote:
“The power issue, where vigorously handled in the public interest, means abundant and cheaper power for American industry, reduced rates and increased use in millions of urban and rural homes . . .
“It is the purpose of government to see that not only the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved . . .
“Power has been discussed so much in complex language in terms which only a lawyer can understand, or in figures which only an accountant can understand.
“A public service commission is the proper way for the people themselves to protect their interests. In practice, however, it has in many instances departed from its proper sphere of action and also from its theory of responsibility. It is an undeniable fact that in our modern American practice the public service commissions have often failed to live up to the high purpose for which they were created. In many instances their selection has been obtained by the public utility corporations themselves.
“These corporations have often influenced, to the prejudice of the public, the actions of public service commissions . . .
“The public service commission is not a mere arbitrator between the people and the public utilities, but was created for the purpose of seeing that the utilities do two things—give service and charge reasonable rates.
“The regulation commission must be a tribune of the people, putting its engineering, accounting and legal resources into real use for the purpose of getting the facts and doing justice to both the consumers and the investors in public utilities. This means positive and active protection of the public against private greed.
“State-owned federal-owned power sites can and should be developed by government itself . . . As an important part of this policy, the natural hydroelectric power resources belonging to the people should remain forever in their possession. This policy is as radical as American liberty. Never shall the government part with its sovereignty and control over its power resources while I am President of the United States.”
It took Roosevelt 12-years of battling the utility companies to put his vision in a law passed by Congress and backed by government funding. On May 21, 1936, he signed the Rural Electrification Act, which created the Rural Electrification Administration,
According to the author Felix Rohatyn, Roosevelt’s electrification program literally transformed America.
Within the first two years of the operation of the REA, 1.5 million farms in 45 states received electrical power from 3540 cooperatives. Over the subsequent decades, the electrical grid continued to expand. By the 1950s, in just 20 years, REA had provided power to nearly all American farms.
In his book, Bold Endeavors, Felix Rohatyn reveals that Roosevelt started to think long and hard about electrification when he received at his modest cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia an electric bill that was four times the bill for his upstate New York mansion. He felt this was deeply wrong. And he was concerned about how rural citizens were being deprived of the benefits of electricity. This experience combined with his studies of public utility law at Columbia University shaped his program to electrify the entire country.
I think President Aquino would be able to see the power issue more clearly and care a little more, if he were only a regular family guy, with a home, a wife and children to care for, and a regular electric bill to pay for. No one can be neutral after receiving a Meralco bill tripling or doubling your usual monthly bill.