"Utang na loob goes a long way."
The bedrock of the presidential form of democratic government is the system of checks and balances governing the acts of the three branches, among which the Constitution has distributed the powers of government. The Legislative Department (which makes the laws), the Executive Department (which enforces the laws) and the Judiciary (which decides whether or not a law conforms to the Constitution) check on and balance one another.
In the best of circumstances—when the system of checks and balances would be operating smoothly—the Executive Department would take action against errant legislative behavior, the legislature would pass laws seeking to curtail or outlaw unsound Executive policies and the legislature would punish unworthy magistrates by impeaching or prosecuting them. Checking and balancing would be the order of the day.
But in the real world government circumstances are not always the best. Things will turn bad, and the vision of the authors of the Constitution will not be achieved, when the envisioned government composed of three co-equal branches is transformed—into a government dominated by one branch. Naturally, that branch is the Executive Department, for the Executive Department is the branch with the resources and the administrative infrastructure.
The first of the three supposedly co-equal branches to disappear after a general election is the legislature. Because Philippine political parties of the postwar era don’t have a guiding philosophy, the story has been the same after every election: Most of the newly elected members of the House of Representatives and some members of the newly elected Senate discard their pre-election parties and rapidly join the coalition organized by the leaders of the new President’s party. This has been the scenario after virtually every postwar general election, and the reason is obvious. As Chief Executive, the newly elected President has full control over the preparation of the GAA (General Appropriations Act) and district representatives and senators who display principle and decide to not join the hastily cobbled coalition will receive little or no funding for the projects that will facilitate their re-election. This phenomenon is true even when, as in 1992, the new president is a plurality Chief Executive.
When the new President has the new Congress in his back pocket, the system of three co-equal branches of government is effectively transformed into a system with two co-equal branches, namely, a vastly enlarged Executive Department and the Judiciary.
The last to go among the three co-equal branches of government is the Judiciary. Here the decisive factor is not the attractiveness of the purse: it is the old Filipino trait of regard for utang na loob. Staunch defenders of the nation’s highest tribunal will declare with utmost passion that the 15 members of the Supreme Court do not feel beholden to the President of the Philippines for their appointments as the top magistrates in the land. Certainly, there is no way of determining the motivation underlying every vote that a Supreme Court justice casts. But cultural values die hard, and thoughts of utang na loob almost certainly enter the minds of many Filipinos when they analyze the composition of a Supreme Court vote on a case important to Malacañang. There is a lot of potential utang na loob in the present Supreme Court: halfway into his term President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed a majority of the 15 justices, and by the time his term ends, almost all of them will be his appointees.
Applying the co-equality criterion to the present situation in this country, can the Philippine government be said to be a government made of three co-equal branches? Sadly, the answer is No. Only one-half of Congress—the Senate—functions as a co-equal entity; the other half, the House of Representatives, functions, like it usually does, as it if were an extension of Malacañang. The Supreme Court has in recent years handed down decisions supportive of the Executive Department’s position—such as its highly unpopular decision on the Marcos burial issue, but it has invariably done so with well-reasoned arguments. Still, many Filipinos categorize it as a no longer co-equal branch of the government.