The CBCP, the bishops’ group, recently asked for issue-based presidential debates. Well and good. Serious debates on critical national issues will shift the tone from “Mar courts Boss Danding” headlines, which is basically how low-grade politics in this sad sack of an unserious country function . But here is the rub. The CBCP got the debate topics wrong.
I will list down some of the CBCP suggested topics : BBL, FOI, drugs, K-12, DAP and PDAF and the anti-dynasty bill. Now, I will throw this question . What is in these issues that make them primary debate topics? The answer: Very little . I don’t think the bishops have a clue on how government operates.
DAP and PDAF are essentially part of the so-called “executive overstretch “ or the practice of the executive branch to exercise more powers than what it has under the principle of “three co-equal branches of government.” And it is important that the body politic get rid of these monstrosities in the national budget. But the CBCP missed this point – the DAP and PDAF can routinely be inserted in the national budget by the executive branch because of one reason: the power over the purse has been hijacked by the executive branch to the detriment of Congress, this power’s real owner.
To get rid of the budgetary abominations, the CBCP should simply (via public pressure and exposing the executive overstretch and via many other means) help Congress recover the budgetary powers it lost to the executive branch, which genesis can be traced to the martial law regime. Then exact a vow from Congress not to repeat that same odious practice of creating PDAFs and DAPs, once it has regained full control of the budget process .
To get rid of DAPs and PDAFs, Congress has just to reassert its power over the budget. As simple as that. This act, dear bishops, does not need presidential imprimatur of any sort. Now, tell us, why is that an important debate topic when it can be resolved without the consent of the president?
Passing the BBL, the FOI bill and the anti-dynasty bill just requires one thing – toughening the spine of Congress. A truly enlightened Congress can pass these with speed. The ball, as they say, on the three bills is in the hands of current Congress. With ample political will, the passage of the three bills is guaranteed, with or without the push from the President. If the current Congress fails to do its job, the next Congress with enough spine and will can do this.
The CBCP, this is what many have noticed, does not really have a clue on the separation of powers, or the distributions and demarcations of powers among the three branches of government in our democracy. The bishops miss this important point – the grand ideas given fresh by Congress via legislation is the policy-making part of our democracy. The president may or may not have anything to do with that, at least on the ideal or theoretical level.
Now, I am wondering about this: Did the CBCP secretariat just clip headlines and made them debate topics?
Now, what debate topics should really be discussed by presidential candidates? The CBCP should find clues from the many statements of Pope Francis, which an elected president can vigorously deal with via executive action. First and foremost is the depressing economic injustice in the country, where one family can be worth $11 billion plus and some 11 million families self-rate themselves as poor and admit to suffering from involuntary hunger on a daily basis .
Why this is not important to the CBCP, and not worthy as a debate topic, is something that puzzles ordinary Filipinos? Inequality is society’s cancer. It is the reason there is no viable middle class here. It is the reason civil society – the frontline of defense against abusive government officials and profiteers in the private sector – is populated by phonies and poseurs who just want the limelight.
With a vibrant middle class and a functioning civil society, we don’t even need legal fiats such as the anti-dynasty bill and the FOI because these are natural cognates of a just and fair society and a strong middle class can demand that they be granted even without legal fiats.
Right now and on our own specific context, the first debate topic should be the program to rein in the great divide and the vigor and viability of a presidential candidate’s anti-poverty, redistribution agenda.
Related to that, the bishops can encourage debate questions like this one to test their resolve to rein in the great divide. Are you willing to carry out helicopter drops (of money) in remote areas of extreme poverty? The bishops should require a “yes” answer.
This question should also be asked and credible answers should be required. The Revolutionary Left said it has opened up several revolutionary fronts and more and more people are turning to insurgency to have meaning in their lives. The CBCP should respond to the CPP by asking presidential candidates this question. Why is this taking place in a so-called robust and vibrant economy?
A presidential debate should not miss another topic that is more important to humanity than a thousand FOIs. The issue of wage increases and the complementary issue of labor organizing. Do you favor the revitalization of the workers right to organize and collectively bargain for living wages? What will you do to strengthen the waning inspectorate powers of the DOLE? The Labor Code has been static and outdated. What will be your efforts to make it a 21st century document?
The FOI and the fight against dynasties are important. But they should be , at best, subsidiary issues in a presidential debate.
What a presidential candidate should first expound on in a debate is a plank on how to help the vulnerable, expand on the social contract of the state with its citizens. How it escaped the attention of the bishops is beyond us. Maybe the bishops skipped reading the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest political tome ever written.