Political Cancer

Tissue sometimes grows in areas where it is not supposed to be, drawing life from the same system that sustains the healthy cells of the body.  Many such growths are harmless. But some are malignant: they graft themselves onto healthy organs, destroying these in the process.  The aggressive ones “metastasize” or travel to other parts, passing through the blood stream and lymphatic channels of the body.  Left unchecked, cancerous growths can be so invasive that they can quickly overwhelm the whole system, which is why a CA diagnosis is dreaded like no other medical condition.

In our political system, the initials “CA” refer to the Commission on Appointments, a constitutional organ consisting of 12 senators and 12 congressmen, with the Senate president acting as ex-officio chairman.  It draws its mandate directly from the Constitution, not from Congress.  So powerful is this tissue of public authority that its proceedings carry the same dreadful connotations as its medical analogue. Its basic function is to review and confirm presidential appointments to high positions in government for the purpose of screening out unfit or unqualified appointees.  The exercise of this vital function has spawned malignant practices, as the recent revelations of Negros Oriental Rep. Herminio Teves indicate.

The malignancy in the Commission on Appointments is an open secret among people in government.  Fear on the part of those subject to its proceedings, compounded by a twisted sense of parliamentary camaraderie among the members, allows it to flourish. Even the appointing power regards it as an integral part of the giveand-take of politics. Thus is the cancer fed rather than arrested.

The shakedown begins at the sub-committee level. Upright or clueless appointees are given the run-around until they begin to understand the full extent of their helplessness before the gods of the CA. It is possible to fight a solitary tormentor, but nearly impossible to confront a gang of determined bandits.  They can hurt you, humiliate you, and bleed you dry if you allow them.  The fortitude that a decent self-respecting appointee can summon often depends on how much the position means to him or her. Generals and career ambassadors for whom an appointment represents the culmination of a lifelong career are particularly vulnerable and will often swallow their pride to please the gods.

Ambitious individuals for whom a government appointment  is nothing more than a racket or a launching pad for a political career know the game only too well and are more than willing to accede to its unspoken rules. They breeze through the process because they bring with them offers of “projects”, strategic appointments in the agencies under their control, and other perks.

What makes all of this so astonishing is that, in fact, only a few in the Commission on Appointments are routinely involved in blatant extortion.  Yet, because the system offers no resistance, the malignancy permeates the entire commission.  Most of the CA members may indeed generally approach their work professionally, but, on certain occasions, they may also find themselves opposing an appointment on the strength of a whim or a personal grudge.  Many politicians do not even try to conceal the deeply personal basis of their interventions – whether in CA deliberations or in budget hearings. This is how the disease spreads – by a breaching of the wall separating public interest from purely personal objectives.

Viewed from this standpoint, there is no substantive difference between a CA member demanding a P5 million bribe for a confirmation and another accepting “projects” or favors for his constituency from the head of an agency facing confirmation proceedings.  Both violate good governance. Both constitute a misuse of public power.  But just to show how much this pernicious quid pro quo pervades the whole government system, Malacanang has chosen to ignore the extortion controversy in the CA by stating, in the words of Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol, that it is “part of the job of the congressman” to lobby for projects from Cabinet members.

How a tissue of malignant practice ends up becoming the norm of political behavior illustrates political metastasis at work.  It is how Rome collapsed, argues Cullen Murphy in a new book: Are We  Rome?  Murphy takes off from the work of the Oxford historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, who studied the changing meanings across five centuries of the Latin word suffragium, which originally meant a voting tablet.

“The citizens of Rome, by means of the suffragium, could exercise their influence in electing people to certain offices. In practice, the great men of Rome controlled large blocs of votes, corresponding to their patronage networks. Over time Rome’s republican forms of government calcified into empty ritual or withered away entirely… (I)n this context suffragium came to mean the pressure that could be exerted on one’s behalf by a powerful man, whether to obtain a job or to influence a court case or to secure a contract.…It is not a great conceptual distance, Ste. Croix observes, to move from the idea of exercising suffragium because of an age-old sense of reciprocal duty to that of exercising it because doing so could be lucrative….By empire’s end, all public transactions require the payment of money, and the pursuit of money and personal advancement has become the purpose of all public jobs.”

Are we Rome, minus the greatness?

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