Nation awaits choices of new Cabinet members, Congress leaders

Published May 19, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Sonny Coloma


Sonny Coloma

Between the elections and the inauguration, a new administration has around a month and a half to prepare to assume office. Transition committees have been formed by both the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure a smooth transfer of power. The incoming administration of presumptive President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., would also be focusing on the inauguration program that will be held on June 30, 2022.

The focal point of the transition would be the Office of the President, as the president is also the chief executive who heads a mammoth bureaucracy. The executive branch includes the Cabinet departments and the government-owned and controlled corporations. The local governments – even if their provincial, city, and municipal heads are directly elected – are also under the supervision and administrative control of the Office of the President.

Choosing the members of the Cabinet is decidedly the most critical decision-making process that a new president would undertake. By definition, members of the Cabinet are the president’s alter ego, or other self. Hence, they reflect his philosophy of governance, as well as his basic beliefs, mindset, and personality.

But choosing Cabinet members also presents formidable challenges, especially as it involves “division of the spoils” among the different factions of the winning coalition. There could be intense infighting – or milder forms of “horse trading” – reflecting jockeying for positions of power in the bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic power is, of course, measured by the size of the budget. By fiat, the Department of Education enjoys the highest budgetary priority. It also employs the biggest number of employees. In the ₱5.024-trillion national budget for 2022, DepEd ranks number one with ₱773.6 billion, followed by Department of Public Works and Highways, ₱686.1 billion; Department of the Interior and Local Government, ₱250.4 billion; Department of National Defense, ₱222 billion; and Department of Social Welfare and Development, ₱191.4 billion.

The incoming administration would inherit a budget that was prepared by its predecessor. One of its immediate tasks is to craft its own national expenditure plan for 2023. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the outgoing administration resorted to heavy borrowings, raising the country’s debt burden to ₱12.68 trillion. The president’s budget should be submitted to Congress within a month after he delivers his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 25, 2022.

It is important that a cohesive economic team be formed. This is made up of the Secretary of Finance as the informal leader, or primus inter pares, first among equals; the Secretary of Budget and Management, who is the formal chairperson of the Development Budget Coordinating Committee; the Director-General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA); the Executive Secretary and the Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno, who also served previously as budget secretary, will continue serving under the incoming administration until July 2023 – so he would be able to provide continuity in terms of policy direction. Moreover, he could harmonize the interplay of fiscal and monetary policies. Also part of the economic team is the Secretary of Trade and Industry whose department oversees the Board of Investments and the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA).

The Executive Secretary is, of course, known, too, as the little president. He certifies all proclamations, executive orders and circulars issued by the Office of the President. His legislative staff reviews all laws passed by Congress before these are signed or vetoed by the president. His office is also the arbiter of all disciplinary actions involving government officials, except graft cases covered by the Office of the Ombudsman’s mandate. There is also a secretary to the Cabinet that prepares and coordinates Cabinet meetings and policy coordination among concerned departments of the executive branch. The Presidential Management Staff also performs policy review; handles presidential appointments; coordinates out of town trips, and coordinates with the Department of Foreign Affairs on foreign travel and on ASEAN, APEC, and United Nations where the president’s participation is required.

Such is the vast scope of the president’s executive power that the choice of Cabinet members must be made with great deliberation and circumspection. In recent memory, perhaps it was during the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III where there were few or minimal changes in the Cabinet. This is because changes in heads of executive departments could disrupt the stability of top-level policy making.

Another key transition concern of the new president is managing relations with Congress.
Since 1986, Senate Presidents and Speakers of the House have generally been aligned with the incumbent president’s coalition. Recall that after the 2016 elections, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, both known allies of President Duterte were elected as Senate President and House Speaker, respectively.

Current speculations are centered on Rep. Martin Romualdez, the presumptive President’s first cousin, as having the inside track on the House speakership. Observers claim that former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who served as House Speaker in 2018 after Sara Duterte, the President’s daughter, reportedly initiated a “coup” in her favor, could be eyeing a return to power. Senator Cynthia Villar, who represents another major faction in the new majority coalition, is also reportedly aiming to become Senate President.

The people who delivered a massive mandate to the incoming administration are clearly eager to know who will compose the new president’s Cabinet and lead the two houses of Congress.