IN the plethora of analysis and commentary over the congressional Commission on Appointments’ unprecedented rejection of President Duterte’s nominee, Perfecto Yasay Jr., for Foreign Affairs secretary, the focus has been on the Big Lie.
True, if Yasay had not lied or given such contradictory and flatly misleading answers to the CA panel’s questions about his only-recently-renounced US citizenship, he would probably be the confirmed Foreign Affairs chief today. Because the CA would have hesitated to snub the President outright, especially one as popular as Duterte, and risk angering his fanatical base. But Yasay’s offense was so egregious, they just had to reject him.
But it does not address what may be the key question: Why did Yasay, a lawyer, not come clean with his answers to the question put to him at the CA about reports concerning his US citizenship? Did he think the truth would never come out?
Yasay probably thought a CA rejection was not important, confident that the President would reappoint him, and continue to do so even if rejected again, as many Presidents had done when dealing with a recalcitrant CA. In the event, the President did not intervene. He immediately appointed a career diplomat, Enrique Manalo, as acting Foreign Affairs secretary.
Yasay may have miscalculated, but he was correct about the dynamics between the Palace and the CA when it comes to submitting presidential appointments for confirmation. The truth is the confirmation process has become debased that Presidents, and even the nominees themselves, have all but ignored it. Year after year, Cabinet secretaries and other nominees are rejected and then routinely reappointed by Malacañang ad nauseam, until the end of that President’s term. Some nominees give up out of frustration. Others opt to serve out their appointments, unconfirmed, apparently without any untoward consequences to themselves.
Going through the obstacle course of the CA confirmation process is torture for those who are not afforded the protective mantle of Malacañang like the Cabinet secretaries. The process could go on for years and, once called to a hearing, you never know what will be thrown at you. A female ambassador nominee to a European country reportedly sat weeping as a senator harangued her and called her names. Some nominees are never confirmed simply because the CA never scheduled a hearing for them on the whim of just one member. President Aquino’s Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was not confirmed for four years, because she didn’t know she had to make a courtesy call on the CA members. As an agency head, you could be hit for some favorable appointment of a protégé or some other demand. Some CA members even figured in the affidavit of notorious “pork” scam queen Janet Lim-Napoles as having demanded a share of the “pork” lodged in the agencies of some of the nominees.
Membership in the CA is highly coveted; it is said that jockeying for a place in it starts the day after an election. The position is powerful and rife with possibilities, even if it’s only to carry out some personal vendetta. The weapon of choice is the CA’s Section 20, the one-person veto under which any CA member can withhold consideration of a nomination, without explanation.
Recommendations have been made to deal with this CA conundrum, beginning with its abolition. That is obviously not acceptable as the President’s power to appoint needs to be checked and balanced. To our mind, just two reforms, to start with the proposed strike 3 rule, whereby a nominee may not be reappointed after being rejected thrice. The other is for a nominee to simply not be allowed to serve until he or she is confirmed. This removes their vulnerability to pressure, and conversely puts pressure on the CA to speed up the confirmation process, else the business of running the government would come to a standstill.
But the President has also to do his part by making the appointments process more responsible and efficient. We understand that political appointees are a throwback to the spoils system where almost all jobs are based on patronage. But Duterte has to approach it more systematically, not by ad hoc decision and impulse. This means complete staff work and due diligence.
The President has apparently accepted that Yasay has to go. He has even said it might be a good idea for Sen. Alan Cayetano to stay put at the Senate, that he is quite happy with having just an acting Foreign Secretary. We can live with that. Manalo ticks all the right boxes: grew up in the diplomatic service; excellent education; extensive experience and service in nearly all the important diplomatic posts–UK, EU and the UN, and as deputy undersecretary for policy. God forbid he has some skeleton in his closet or we will have another nightmare of a CA hearing.