The true SONA

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

According to the Official Gazette website, the State of the Nation Address or SONA is the once-a-year event when our President faces a joint session of Congress and “reports on the state of the country, unveils the government’s agenda for the coming year, and may also propose to Congress certain legislative measures.”

First, the SONA is a constitutional obligation of the President, required by Article VII, Section 23 of the 1987 Constitution, “The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.” Article VI, Section 15 prescribes that the Congress “shall convene once every year on the fourth Monday of July for its regular session.”

But more critically, the SONA is not a “performance report” of the President. Indeed, it is not actually an address to the people. The fact is, the President is expected to report to us on a regular basis. We must actually demand performance assessments as often as possible in order to keep the President and his administration on their toes.

The intended audience of the SONA is Congress, even though the general public will inevitably hear it as well. The constitution never intended the SONA to be a President’s platform for “making papogi”. The SONA’s purpose is clear and that is to be the stage for the President to address both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Now, this occasion is not expected to occur on a regular basis.

So, what should the SONA contain, then? It is worth emphasizing that this address is primarily for the ears of lawmakers. The theme therefore must always be a call to action. Again, this should not be used by the President as a chance to do a “victory lap”, as some of his allies are suggesting. To do so simply cheapens the SONA.

The SONA should have a clear and coherent articulation of the current state of the nation. This means the President should be able to explain to Congress the extent of the intergenerational problems that we need to overcome. Obviously, there is no expectation to deliver a highly detailed presentation. But certainly, the President must offer an honest-to-goodness account of what ails the country.

Accordingly, the SONA should also present measures that address the problems that were identified by the President. But simply enumerating a “to-do-list” will not be enough. The expectation is for the President to outline a responsive action agenda for the year to come. Again, this address must fundamentally be an exhortation to Congress to work closely with the President as regards the problems that he has just explained.

And therefore, the SONA should also include a strong directive for Congress to enact specific measures that either complement or implement the President’s action agenda. It cannot be emphasized enough that this address is at its very core, a public declaration of our Chief Executive that our lawmakers also need to fulfill their responsibility in advancing the lives of Filipinos.

Admittedly, the SONA has been used as an occasion for political posturing. In truth, the political aspect of this tradition cannot be avoided. Nonetheless, the address itself cannot simply be valued for its beneficial impact to the President’s popularity and his administration’s trust-rating. The SONA, regardless of the political context, must still be a roadmap towards improving the state of the nation.

Sadly, the speech delivered by President Bongbong Marcos last July 24 was not a SONA, as intended by the constitution. As he himself promised, the address he gave was essentially a highlight reel of the past year for his administration. There was a feeble attempt to charge Congress with the task of contributing to his agenda for the year ahead, through a laundry list of priority bills.

The speech we heard was obviously crafted as a “feel-good” sermon, but the catch is, only the President and his supporters will likely feel good about it. Even non-partisan observers were left scrambling for his coherent roadmap for the next 12 months. Perusing the social media scape after its delivery, the dominant reaction from the online public was a palpable collective sigh of “Same old, same old.”

Indeed, far from being a sacrosanct constitutional celebration, the SONA has been used by our political elites as a stage to showcase their latest fashion statements. Instead of projecting the seriousness of this momentous gathering of our political leaders, the attention has been on who wears what and why. And it is just a pity that media has decided to oblige this anomaly through their “red carpet coverage” of the SONA. Some media personalities have even joined this charade altogether.

So, we must ask ourselves, do we still want a SONA, the true SONA as intended by the 1987 Constitution? Or are we content with this glorified campaign rally that we endure every fourth Monday of July? Are we happy to just gawk at the spectacle that is the yearly parade of wannabe models and artistas amongst our political class? Do we just accept the long-winded self-promoting narration of our President as the “tradition”?

Personally, I would say no. Absolutely not. It would be best for us regular folks, to push harder in making sure the true purpose of the SONA is met by every sitting President. The fashion show we can probably tolerate from time to time, but we must really insist that the Chief Executive be more loyal to the constitutional rationale of the SONA. For starters, he should check out the Official Gazette website. We probably should as well.