eLegis Olongapo City Philippines Sangunian

11 February 2006

Senators press SC for TRO vs EO 464

‘Warn of crisis in gov’t

FAILURE of Cabinet officials to appear before budget deliberations by invoking Executive Order 464 prompted 17 senators led by Senate President Franklin Drilon to ask the Supreme Court yesterday to immediately issue a temporary restraining order against the so-called gag order.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Interior Undersecretary Marius Corpus invoked EO 464 as reason for not appearing before the Senate Wednesday for the hearing of the proposed 2006 budgets of their respective offices.

This prompted senators to propose a P1 budget for the Office of the Press Secretary and the Department of Interior and Local Government. They also warned of rejection by the Commission on Appointments of appointees who will snub confirmation hearings.

On Thursday, senators virtually declared war on Malacañang and vowed to get back at officials who will invoke EO 464 in refusing Senate invitations to congressional and confirmation hearings.

EO 464, signed by President Arroyo last September 27, prohibits department heads and generals in the Armed Forces and the National Police from appearing before congressional hearings without permission from Arroyo.

In October last year, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita issued Memorandum Order 192 which allows officials to attend confirmation and budget hearings up to Dec. 31, 2005.

Last Jan. 27, he issued MO 192-A which allows the officials, "unless otherwise specifically directed," to attend budget and confirmation hearings until June 30, 2006.

But Ermita on Wednesday said they had come up with another directive revoking MOs 192 and 192-A. He said this was on the advice of the Palace’s legal department pending resolution of petitions before the Supreme Court questioning the legality of EO 464.

No copy of the directive has been made available by the Palace.

Sixteen senators asked the Supreme Court in October last year to declare EO 464 unconstitutional, saying it violates the principle of separation of powers and corollary checks and balance by frustrating the functions of Congress and infringing on the basic principle of transparency and on access to information.

Their urgent motion, filed late yesterday, followed a Supreme Court resolution setting oral arguments on February 21.

The petitioners aside from Drilon were Senators Juan Flavier, Francis Pangilinan, Aquilino Pimentel, Rodolfo Biazon, Pia Cayetano, Jinggoy Estrada, Loi Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Richard Gordon, Panfilo Lacson, Alfredo Lim, Sergio Osmeña III, Ralph Recto, Mar Roxas III, Jamby Madrigal, and Manuel Villar.

Villar, who was out of the country at the time, was not among those who signed the October petition.

In the urgent motion, the senators through lawyer Pacifico Agabin said the implementation of EO 464 will lead to "another crisis in the bureaucracy" as even legislation grounds to a halt.

"In the light of the above developments critical to the nation, petitioners respectfully pray for the intervention of the Honorable Court and for the immediate resolution of their application for TRO and/or writ of preliminary injunction," Agabin said in the seven-page motion.

Agabin said hearings for the P1.05 trillion proposed national budget for 2006 have been blocked because of the invocation by officials of EO 464.

Failure to pass the budget will result in the reenactment of the 2005 appropriations.

Senators have said under a reenacted budget, Arroyo will be able to realign and transfer funds from one office to another.

Agabin noted that even nominees for Cabinet-level positions have refused to appear for confirmation hearings, also invoking the EO.

"This will lead to another crisis in the bureaucracy since the chairman of the CoA (Commission on Appointments) has threatened to reject all nominees for top Cabinet positions who refuse to appear before the Commission, and that thereafter, they will have to vacate their positions which they are temporarily occupying," Agabin said.

In their October petition, the senators said EO 464 was a case of a "blatant executive overreaching into legislative authority at its worst, the timing of its enactment showing that it is intended no less than to insulate the President and virtually all government officials from justified public scrutiny and congressional inquiry."

The senators said the President’s "executive privilege does not shield executive officials from testifying before Congress" and that the trend in jurisprudence is toward more liberal access to information, and more restricted use of the privilege.

Aside from the senators, other groups that opposed the EO were the party-list Bayan Muna, the Alternative Lawyers Group, former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez, and the PDP-Laban led by Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay.

The Office of the Solicitor General has said EO 464 was intended to ensure the observance of the principle of the separation of powers, adherence to the rule on executive privilege, and respect for the rights of public officials appearing in legislative investigations.

Biazon yesterday said Malacañang’s move to clip the Senate’s powers would only make palatable to the public extra-constitutional means being pushed by some sectors to oust Arroyo.

Biazon said the continued implementation of EO 464 would lead to the "erosion of the credibility of government institutions and the breakdown of institutional processes."

This, he said, could then "lead to a total loss of institutional options to correct what is wrong in government."

"The loss of institutional options and constitutional processes would make extra-constitutional means as a last resort acceptable to the people," he said.

He said sectors that have up to this time rejected the idea of another popular uprising to oust Arroyo could reconsider and agree to take to the streets.

Biazon also said that because of the EO, senators could not pursue investigations into the North Rail contract, the anomalous use of the multi-billion fertilizer fund, the disbursement of the Marcos fund, the wire-tapping issue and the alleged cheating in the May 2004 elections.

A group calling itself Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (Codal) said Arroyo and her officials are criminally liable for their failure to submit a "written and official justification for the President’s refusal to allow executive officials to appear before the Senate."

It said EO 464 violated three provisions of the Constitution, namely, Congress’ power to conduct legislative investigations and to approve the budget and the people’s right to information on matters of public concern.

Pangilinan said he was "dismayed by the deliberate attempt of Malacañang to stifle our public servants from fulfilling their mandate to serve at the pleasure of our countrymen."

He said: "Malacañang does not have an exclusive franchise on determining what constitutes matters of national interest. In fact, history has shown that a number of official acts of a sitting president have been shown to be inconsistent with the national interest."

He asked Arroyo to withdraw EO 464 immediately.

Recto asked Malacañang to appoint a "bridge" to the Senate to end its "cold war" with senators.

"If Malacañang would like to reconcile with President Estrada, why can’t it not do the same to the Senate? If it is willing to talk peace with 100,000 armed men, why can’t it now settle its differences with 23 individuals?" Recto said.

Gabriel Claudio, presidential adviser for political affairs, said backchannel efforts to appease senators are ongoing. He did not elaborate.

Claudio said they expect the confusion to be resolved as soon as the Supreme Court rules on EO 464.

Presidential chief of staff Michel Defensor said he feels that the budget hearings would eventually resume but hopes that some form of "parameters" would be set to prevent the hearings from being abused.

Ermita said Thursday there have been instances when members of the executive branch were being grilled on issues outside the budget. – Evangeline de Vera, Joan Dairo and Jocelyn Montemayor - Malaya