Interest groups, not political parties, blocked Gina Lopez as environment secretary



First word
IN dismay over the rejection of Environment Secretary Gina Lopez by the congressional Commission on Appointments (CA), President Duterte declared wildly that “lobby money” decided the issue. That’s virtually to suggest that CA members were bribed to vote against Lopez. That’s also to admit that his administration simply could not muster the votes to overcome the opposition to her nomination.

DU30 would have been more accurate had he said that some of his political opponents, and some of his own supporters, combined to defeat the Lopez nomination. In the aftermath of the vote, some of the happiest people were the mining moguls who bankrolled Mar Roxas’s candidacy for president. And happy also were the mining interests who supported Duterte’s candidacy, which included some of the biggest mining concerns in Mindanao.

When the smoke of battle cleared, it was the mining interests, and not the political parties, who had succeeded in voting down the Lopez appointment.

Interest groups and political parties
As I Iearned long ago in political studies, there are two types of groups that contend in democratic politics: political parties and interest groups. Political parties seek to elect their members to office in order to control government. Interest groups seek only to influence what government does.

Normally, because of the central role they play in elections, it is the political parties that win. This time, in this nomination struggle, the interest groups won the day.

Why CA rejected Gina
Having enthusiastically supported Gina Lopez and her policies in this column (I believe mining should be totally banned), I have spent time pondering why, with DU30’s support, Gina could not get the nod of the CA.

I have reached a few conclusions, and the following seem to me the most valid and most likely to stand the test of argument:

In order of significance, these conclusions are:

First, there is no party in control of Congress. The 2016 elections did not allow any party or any presidential candidate the authority to exercise control over Congress.

The so-called “super-majority coalition” in both houses of Congress was cobbled together in the aftermath of DU30’s resounding victory. It is basically a political fiction; and it was designed to extract as much largesse for its members as possible from President Duterte and the administration.

The coalition does not cohere around a legislative agenda or a set of political principles and ideas. Each coalition member is loyal only to himself/herself. They can go their own way on a vote when they must.

Second, President Duterte’s leadership of Congress is more symbolic than real. His ties to his political party, PDP- Laban, are no more firmer today than they were during the campaign for the presidency. He was not elected with a raft of candidates.

Duterte’s ties to the parties in the coalition are skin-deep. The parties did not sign any covenants to become a member of the coalition.

There is more hype than fact in an alleged Duterte railroad in Congress.

DU30 has never played the part of party leader. He has never spoken to the supermajority in caucus. Bargaining has been conducted mostly in the shadows.

Congress asserting independence
Third, in the face-off over presidential appointments, Congress is asserting its authority to advise and consent to appointments as mandated by the Constitution. DU30 cannot override this constitutional right of the legislature, without adequate congressional support and a revote.

The President has no choice but to yield.

Fourth, interest groups, representing the oligarchy, could be more powerful than the political parties in the Cabinet and Congress. There are many legislators who own mining businesses.

The mining industry managed to insert one of their own, Rep. Ronaldo Zamora of San Juan, into the vice-chairmanship of the appointments body.

Within the Cabinet there is a strong mining lobby. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, whose family is rumored to have mining interests, led a review of the policies and actions of Secretary Lopez.

Fifth, Gina Lopez replicated the failures of other women in high office, notably Vice President Leni Robredo as housing secretary, and Leila de Lima as justice secretary and human rights commission chair.

She got buried by all the publicity and expectations that she stirred upon her accession to office.

Gina appeared to copy the sturm und drang (storm and stress) political style of President Duterte in her takeover of theDENR by trying to scare the mining industry into submission. She did not start by undertaking a strategic audit of the department and then proceed to implement a clear-eyed strategic program.

When the miners aggressively pushed back and targeted her nomination before the CA, she proved to be unprepared.

Three missing secretaries
With the rejection of the Lopez appointment, the Duterte administration is now missing three important members of the Cabinet: the secretary of foreign affairs, the secretary of the interior and local government, and the secretary of environment and natural resources. These are all major Cabinet portfolios, commanding large chunks of the bureaucracy, several important subunits, and the budget.

The business of government cannot move forward without these departments working effectively and handling their ends.

With the administration’s mediocre record in headhunting and in the vetting of prospective appointments, along with DU30’s undisciplined and irascible management style, there is little reason for confidence that the President can attract qualified and able managers-leaders to join his administration.

But the talent search must now become a matter of urgent priority. A veritable campaign has to be launched to recruit good candidates for appointment. The help of the private sector, which competes for all available talent, will be needed. Big business will help because this will afford a chance to gain some influence in government, and more important the opportunity to take part in building what one government official calls “the Philippines’ 7-percent economy for the 21st century.”

Reorganizing Congress
At the same time, the President must attend to his power base in the legislature, and meddle in the reorganization of both houses. A legislature that takes pride in independence from the executive, is no boon to a reformist presidency. It is a rival.

Speaker Alvarez and Senate President Pimentel are Duterte creations, but they are running their respective houses in a freewheeling manner, without regard to adding substantively to the strength and prestige of the government.

The Senate is being dictated on by the politics and agendas of Senators Antonio Trillanes and Leila de Lima, and the do-nothing Liberals.

The nominal majority will never be regarded as super with Senator Sotto as majority leader.

Now, DU30 plans to burden the legislature with the epic task of convening as a constituent assembly, of effecting major amendments to the Constitution, and of passing a new law for autonomy in Muslim Mindanao, which will give recognition to Bangsamoro aspirations.

These are all contentious issues.

Congress, as it is now, is poorly prepared and organized for such a weighty agenda.

It is time to put the super-majority to a test, or maybe put it aside.


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