It is not too accurate to view the 13-0 DAP vote of the Supreme Court as a landmark in constitutional interpretation. The DAP, in the context of three co-equal branches of government—and with Congress as the branch in charge of the national budget—is a funding aberration, plain and simple. Advanced democracies do allow their aggressive presidents to overreach, but not on matters that pertain to juggling the national budget around like a soft ball.
The DAP and its previous incarnations have been tolerated because item-by-item budgeting by Congress has been eviscerated by contemporary practice. The power of Mr. Marcos over the budget during the martial law years has been carried over into the post martial law budget process because executive powers have remained dominant and Congress has been essentially lazy on budget matters that do not cover pork allocations.
The SC, on its DAP ruling, just wrote down the constitutional verity that the executive is the wrong branch for budget juggling. Or even identifying budgetary priorities, which the executive branch itself would implement. Even the avid monitors of SC rulings cannot find gems of constitutional writing in the vote against the DAP. Because there was none. Because the SC simply stated what three co-equal branches means in theory—which should be followed with fidelity in practice.
So, what was there to behold, to cheer about, in the SC ruling on the DAP?
It was the unwritten but forcefully stated messages to President Aquino. Get off your high horse. Get some lessons in humility. Listen to other voices. Do not fall too deeply in love with your unilateral decisions. It is neither cool nor inspiring to grab the powers of a co-equal branch after feeding it with crumbs called PDAF. There is no legal justification for presidential overreach on budgetary matters.
By exposing the DAP as a funding tool with no legal cloth whatsoever, the SC also exposed an emperor with no clothes.
The SC smacked down the president after helplessly watching the steady usurpation by the Executive of the powers assigned to Congress. Not only has the President usurped the power of the purse. Congress has been acting as a supplicant of the executive branch. It acts with dispatch on the bills favored by the President but with hesitation on bills that do not have the blessing of Mr. Aquino, such as the FOI bill, which the president does not care about.
The SC realized that after Mr. Aquino successfully initiated the impeachment of CJ Corona, the Congress has become a rubber stamp of the President and the usual dissenting voices in the two chambers of the legislature have been tamed.
Can’t there be, the justices of the High Court must have asked themselves, a more articulate voice of dissent other than the clueless Mr. Tiangco or the hapless JV Ejercito? With the political Left, which articulates on the mainstream issues but is pursuing a non-mainstream agenda, has become the spear carrier of the opposition to the President, the SC must have been alarmed.
The 13-0 vote was a reflection of that alarm. A decision was firmed up: We must smack down this president to bring him back to earth. And what perfect timing the SC vote had.
President Aquino, according to mainstream polls, is no longer the well-appreciated president, with net satisfaction ratings at towering heights. Which, in turn, shields him from putdowns from leaders of co-equal institutions and the assaults from his more vitriolic political critics.
The latest mainstream poll found his net satisfaction rating at +25, a record low for Mr. Aquino. The high pedestal where the majority of Filipinos had taken him has been cut down to size and the SC’s unanimous vote will probably whittle down the +25 in the next survey. For the first time in his presidency, Mr. Aquino is vulnerable and is without the Teflon that the previous surveys had given him.
Tragically for Mr. Aquino, the record-low +25 comes at the most nightmarish season to be the leader of the country—the typhoon season. Killer typhoons are the most prodigious breeder of discontent against the government, and the leader, whoever he or she is. The fact that Mr. Aquino would rather inaugurate office towers and host the Davos crowd rather than wade through floods and show emotion at evacuation centers is another trigger point for the increasing discontent with the president.
The SC clearly struck a blow at the imperial presidency at a most vulnerable time for the imperial president.
Has the presidency gotten the SC message?
The way Mr. Aquino has been acting of late, there are no indications that he has gotten that message. Instead of getting off his high horse, he is even polarizing the nations. Wear yellow ribbons to show support for my presidency, Mr. Aquino recently implored the nation.
The tired, weary and huddled masses at the evacuation centers have not heard and will not probably hear the president.