Vetting presidential appointees

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW By Roberto R. Romulo

Last Tuesday, the Commission on Appointments voted in secret in an executive session to reject the appointment of Dr. Paulyn Ubial as secretary of health. She is the fifth Cabinet official appointed by President Duterte to be rejected by the CA. The other four are former agrarian reform secretary Rafael Mariano, social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo, environment secretary Gina Lopez and foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr.

The administration holds the unenviable record of the most number of presidential appointees rejected by the CA. Previously, there were only two other presidential appointees turned down – former finance secretary Ramon del Rosario Jr. during the term of Fidel Ramos and Ricardo Saludo, Civil Service Commission chairman of the Arroyo administration.

Each of the rejections is unique in their circumstances and one cannot all attribute them to the failure of the vetting system that in the first place is not as robust and methodical as one would hope for in selecting someone tasked with such awesome responsibilities.

One cannot also categorically say that those who are successfully confirmed are the best persons for the position that they hold. Rather, they are the ones who have met no strong opposition to their appointments. On current evidence, the economic cluster Cabinet members are, in the opinion of many, the most competent group of officials in the Duterte administration. The public perception of the other Cabinet members has been rather mixed, although personally I am an admirer of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

President Duterte, of course, has the prerogative to appoint anyone in the Cabinet who he feels is capable of carrying out his mandate and who he is comfortable with. Usually these are people he has known personally or has worked with or had supported his candidacy. And that is a pattern that has been repeated from administration to administration. There were, however, two major differences with his predecessors: President Duterte has not had previous experience in governing beyond the city of Davao so his exposure to people with the necessary expertise has been limited. This explains why there are many appointees who had previously served in Davao or Mindanao. That was certainly the case with Ubial, a mid-level official of the DOH who had previously been the DOH regional director for Davao City. Yasay was the President’s former dorm mate at YMCA. Secondly, the President has always had socialist/populist leanings and was intent on bringing its adherents into the fold early in his administration. That explains Mariano and Taguiwalo.

The appointment of Gina Lopez was apparently a spur of the moment decision to entrust the sensitive portfolio to an ardent environmental activist whose views the President probably shared. The President is quickly finding out he has a broader constituency and many stakeholders’ interest, often times conflicting, that he has to balance for the good of the country. Fortunately, the Commission on Appointments has been doing its job – although most often, it bows to the wishes of the President unless there is glaring opposition to the nominee.

The President – and by extension all of us the governed – might have been spared these grief if there was an effective vetting mechanism in place. Given the short period of time between the proclamation of the winner and his assumption of office, it is critical a timeline must be established so that the current administration can hit the ground running – with the right people.

US confirmation process

In the US this responsibility falls to the presidential transition team which not only helps the president-elect prepare to take office, but to fill roughly 4,000 politically appointed positions, including more than 1,000 jobs requiring Senate confirmation. The appointments team is often among the largest within a presidential transition organization. The Clinton transition team’s appointments office had close to 100 members.

The Center for Presidential Transition, a US NGO has distilled together a best practice for presidential transition and appointments. “The appointments team is typically structured around groups focused on different policy or governance areas, such as national security, economic affairs, health care, education and internal management.

“To accomplish the goals, the appointments team’s work should begin in the pre-election period and continue through the election, the inauguration and the first year of the administration to identify and vet—through both public and non-public means—candidates for key agency roles.”

Before a nomination is submitted to the Senate, the candidate is required to submit several forms and undergo a fair amount of vetting by the White House and FBI. What is gathered in this process includes financial disclosure reports, criminal checks and questionnaires about ties to foreign governments. In many cases, the ideological leanings (conservative or liberal) as demonstrated by the nominee are an important criteria for the Senate to consider. Many nominees have been tripped up by what may have been considered trivial in the Philippines such as not compensating a nanny properly or undeclared income and unpaid taxes or improper relationships.

Phl process weakness

The most glaring example of what might have been avoided was the appointment of Yasay as former secretary of foreign affairs. The CA and particularly, Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato, deserve our gratitude and commendation for the manner in which they exposed the gentleman who had, to be kind, explained his position with what has recently been termed “alternative facts”.

Sadly, it also exposes the weakness in the manner in which presidential nominations are made today and in the past. I think firstly, the business of appointing officials should be a systematic process and subject to robust vetting. It starts with a clear-cut policy agenda of governance (usually in a manifesto sometimes called the “First 100 days”) on which basis the nominee’s expertise and experience – and policy leanings – are assessed for the proper fit. Then a thorough vetting process should follow using the appropriate intelligence agency to perform the necessary due diligence on the nominee, even if he was a close personal friend of the President. Prior to submission to the CA, the nominee must be given a thorough briefing to prepare him for the confirmation hearing.

Once the due diligence is performed, then the Office of the President can submit it the name of the nominee to the Commission on Appointments, which in turn, has the prerogative to exercise further due diligence. Perhaps, legislation should be enacted to ensure such a process is put in place. All this might work, if the President curbs his impulse to make appointments on the spot or rely on intuition rather than through a rational process of selection.

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