On knowing potential presidential alter-egos

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

“I serve at the pleasure of the President.”

We always hear Cabinet secretaries say this when there is public demand for their resignation.

Creative legalists from the executive branch assert that this “pleasuring the President” principle means that presidential appointees, such as department secretaries, hold their posts at the complete sufferance of their boss.

Hence, this line has become the chronically abused excuse of these appointees when they want to cling on to their office. And in most cases, much to the displeasure of the public.

The “pleasuring the President” dogma is actually founded on Article VII, Sections 16 and 17 of the 1987 Constitution which respectively prescribe the appointing and control powers of the President in relation to the executive branch.

Additionally, Section 1 of Book IV of the Administrative Code of the Philippines provides:

“The Executive Branch shall have such Departments as are necessary for the functional distribution of the work of the President and for the performance of their functions.”

Thus, the Chief Executive of the land exercises power through the Cabinet which is comprised of different departments. Department secretaries actually function as representatives of the President for obviously, the latter cannot immediately and personally attend to each and every required task or national issue. This is why cabinet officials are viewed by law as the president’s alter-ego.

The Supreme Court in the case of Carpio vs. Executive Secretary (G.R. No. 96409, February 14, 1992) explained the “alter-ego of the President” principle as follows:

“Equally well accepted, as a corollary rule to the control powers of the President, is the “Doctrine of Qualified Political Agency.” As the President cannot be expected to exercise his control powers all at the same time and in person, he will have to delegate some of them to his Cabinet members.

Under this doctrine, which recognizes the establishment of a single executive, all executive and administrative organizations are adjuncts of the Executive Department, the heads of the various executive departments are assistants and agents of the Chief Executive, and, except in cases where the Chief Executive is required by the Constitution or law to act in person or the exigencies of the situation demand that he act personally, the multifarious executive and administrative functions of the Chief Executive are performed by and through the executive departments, and the acts of the Secretaries of such departments, performed and promulgated in the regular course of business, are, unless disapproved or reprobated by the Chief Executive presumptively the acts of the Chief Executive.”

The first point to be made here is that the President IS the executive branch. And secondly, the actions of the members of the presidential cabinet, unless expressly repudiated, are deemed the acts of the Chief Executive. Hence, we are not merely voting for the president in May, but we are actually voting for an entire bureaucracy, from department heads down to agency chiefs.

Thus, begging the question, should we now require every presidential candidate to give voters an idea of what their cabinet would look like if they win the election? Our experience with incompetent department secretaries being allowed to stay on at the pleasure of the President makes me believe that they should be obliged to do so.

Knowing potential presidential alter-egos at this early stage of the campaign should be part of our decision-making process. We may be voting for a single person only, but the kind of people this individual brings in government will impact the entire nation. Note the unfortunate lesson we learned in the Covid-19 pandemic that a cabinet official who is undeserving of the government post can lead to fatal results.

Moreover, the viability of the promises made by these candidates can be assessed more thoroughly when they include the identities of people tasked to make these campaign undertakings a reality. Presidentiables often present themselves as messiahs, but the reality is, the miracles they offer to entice voters will not be realized without a workforce of able disciples.

For instance, in the context of the implementation of the Mandanas ruling and Executive Order # 138, voters need to know potential heads the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of Budget and Management. These two posts are critical because they co-chair the Committee on Devolution, the very body tasked by Executive Order # 138 to oversee and monitor the execution of our country’s second crack at fiscal and administrative devolution.

We need to be assured that the next president is truly up to the task. Political will must be buttressed by technical competence to make sure that the devolution process produces the desired results. Accordingly, offering names of potential appointees to these crucial posts demonstrates the readiness of a presidential candidate to perform this particular mandate.

On the other hand, the unwillingness of presidential candidates to offer names prevents voters from having a complete picture of their potential cabinet. In my opinion this raises a couple of red-flags. One, it can mean the horse-trading and wheeling and dealing with campaign “backers” have yet to be completed. Sadly, this is not a good sign in relation to the quality of cabinet officials to be appointed in the next administration.

But worse, it also shows a degree of unpreparedness to assume the most difficult job in the country. It is only logical for someone who aspires to be the President to have a ready team who will work in his or her administration. At the very least, a presidentiable must already have a person in mind for key portfolios like foreign affairs, finance, justice and national defense.

If the executive branch was a boat, it can only bring the country to its desired destination if everyone in the Cabinet paddles in the same direction. So, I hope all the presidential candidates realize that being cryptic or evasive about their potential alter-egos is an absolute disservice to voters.

(Atty. Yusingco is a policy analyst and constitutionalist, author and senior research fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance.)