WILL this be the end of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) as we know it?

At a forum at the University of the Philippines School of Economics in October last year, Professor Solita Monsod, the first post-Marcos NEDA director general who served under the fledgling administration of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, issued a stern warning to the public as the agency reeled from the public perception it had become a rubber stamp of Malacañang. This was amid the fallout from the scrapped controversial national broadband network (NBN) deal. (see Has NEDA Gone Nada?)

Ralph Recto [photo courtesy of Senate website]If NEDA is worth saving at all, Monsod had said then, it is imperative to ensure that the right person heads it, implying that an economist should again be put on top of of the country’s premier social and economic development planning and policy coordinating body.

Seeing how NEDA’s independence and integrity had been compromised in the process of approving the $329-million NBN project under then director general Romulo Neri, Monsod, however, pointed to an even graver threat. “It’s the beginning of the end of NEDA,” she said, “when it’s headed by a politician.”

Malacañang apparently paid no heed to Monsod’s unsolicited advice as Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita announced last Wednesday that former senator Ralph Recto, a defeated administration senatorial candidate in the 2007 elections, is immediately taking over NEDA as the new socioeconomic planning secretary.

Like his predecessor Neri, Recto is not an economist by profession, making him the second non-economist to assume the post in the 35 years of NEDA’s existence. Like Neri, Recto’s background is also in business administration, obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the De La Salle University in 1987. He, however, took up masteral studies in Strategic Business Economics from the University of Asia and the Pacific and also has a master’s degree in public administration from U.P.

Descendant of a political family

But most of all, as Monsod had warned, Recto is a politician, a seasoned one at that. He comes from a known political family from Batangas — a lineage traced to his grandfather Claro Mayo Recto, the former nationalist senator and statesman. His father Rafael Recto was an assemblyman in the Marcos-era Batasang Pambansa while his elder brother Richard was a former vice governor of Batangas. Uncle Vicente Mayo was also a former vice governor of the province. His wife, actress Vilma Santos, is on her first term as provincial governor after serving as mayor of Lipa City.

Recto was elected as congressman of the 3rd district of Batangas for three terms from 1992 to 2001. He ran for a Senate seat in 2001 and won his first six-year term, making him the youngest senator of the 12th Congress at age 37. He, however, lost his reelection bid last year, after deciding to run under the Arroyo administration ticket, Team Unity.

A political butterfly, Recto started his political career with the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), switching to the Lakas-CMD in 2001, then to the Nacionalista Party in 2003, only to return to Lakas in 2007. Lakas contributed heavily to his unsuccessful campaign, amounting to P60 million in political advertisements (out of the total P75 million he declared in his statement of election contributions and expenses).

As a congressman and senator, Recto authored legislation mostly dealing with economic reforms, tax measures and poverty alleviation. His most famous (or notorious as the case may be) piece of legislation was Republic Act No. 9337, more known as the Reformed Value-added Tax (R-VAT) Law, which tried to address the country’s budget deficit by imposing tax on previously VAT-exempt items, including petroleum products. The measure also increased the VAT rate from 10 percent to 12 percent, which took effect starting in February 2006. With skyrocketing oil prices in the global market, critics now want the VAT on petroleum products lifted in order to provide relief to consumers from the consequent surging prices of commodities.

‘Political payback’?

Malacañang has tried to ward off speculations that Recto’s appointment was a “political payback” for its losing 2007 senatorial bets. But it’s turning out to be a futile exercise as the charge has stuck, evidently with two other defeated Team Unity candidates already gaining government posts — Vicente ‘Tito’ Sotto III, a former senator, who now heads the Dangerous Drugs Board, and former presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor, appointed to take charge of the presidential task force to prepare the Ninoy Aquino International Airport International Passenger Terminal 3 for commercial operations soon.

Talks are also rife that ex-senator Teresa Aquino-Oreta will assume the post of Department of Education secretary while former Surigao del Sur congressman Prospero Pichay Jr. is being groomed either as Customs commissioner or administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).

At one point, Recto was even earlier rumored to replace Secretary Gary Teves at the Department of Finance.

That governance has become a victim of all the political payoffs under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is quite “unfortunate,” says a former senior government official, particularly regretting Recto’s moving over to NEDA. “Kawawa naman ang NEDA. It’s a pity. NEDA should not be involved in politics.”

Many within and outside NEDA, including Monsod, have indeed noted with dismay how the agency had sunk to its “lowest point” under Neri, whose adamant refusal to answer senators’ questions that could have implicated Arroyo to the NBN scandal only portrayed him as being “beholden to the President.”

In light of the revelations in the Senate hearings on the alleged bribery and overpricing that attended the NBN deal, the NEDA staff had also put two and two together, confirming their worst fears about their former boss — that he himself played the game of politics, was at ease engaging with politicians, and even surrounded himself with a retinue of “consultants” unknown to them which was like a parallel office acting as his political arm. (see Romulo L. Neri: Will Golf, Realpolitik Work at SSS?)

Mixed reaction from NEDA

Yet despite the staff’s misgivings with the way Neri managed things at NEDA, their reaction to the appointment of Recto, a true-blue politician, as new chief has been mixed.

The Organization of NEDA Employees (ONE) is not about to pose any objection to Recto’s appointment. The group, which represents the agency’s rank-and-file personnel from division chiefs down to regular employees, said it has no problems with Recto being head of NEDA since the “discretion is really with the President” as appointing authority.

ONE officials though have vowed to remain vigilant, saying they will be “watchful of the new NEDA chief’s actions.”

A senior management official also acknowledged that Recto’s appointment is a presidential prerogative but nonetheless expressed a bit of apprehension. “We look at it as part of the whole process of organizing the agencies,” he said. “But at this time the decisions of the President are suspect.”

The same official also disclosed that most would have preferred that someone from within the agency had been chosen to lead NEDA. His personal choice, he said, was Deputy Director General Augusto Santos, who was designated as acting director general when Neri was transferred to the Commission on Higher Education last year.

Sinasabi ni Presidente na talagang technocrat si Tito, but you know, if you say dance with the wolves (or to the music), he will refuse,” he shared. “The President knows that. Tito speaks his mind. He is independent that way, but he also cooperates.”

Not a few, however, saw in Recto’s appointment a continuing deterioration in the quality of Cabinet appointments. “It is probably because there is no longer any technically competent person who can stomach or stand this ‘immoderate’ president who would agree to join the Cabinet,” said one NEDA staff.

Noting that Recto is a politician, one official said he would rather give the former senator the opportunity to prove his worth, alluding to what became of his grandfather, the elder Recto (Claro), who, he said, was also a politician before he became a statesman.

But just as easily, he banished the thought and said, “Who would be willing to take the job if not politicians? Who wants Arroyo as a boss anyway, a taskmaster to say the least and very unpopular these days. Besides it would probably dampen their employability by 2010.”

Still, some are hopeful that Recto will be able to bring change to the agency. That he is not in the mold of the former directors general could be providential, some said.

“He might offer something new. I hope he’ll be able to sort things out and that he can offer solutions (to the problems here),” said the senior NEDA official.

Roderick Planta, NEDA’s project monitoring staff director, may have summed up the collective mood of the NEDA staff to the Recto appointment when he said, “We are professionals. We can work well with anybody who has the interests of the nation and the institution at heart.”

1 Response to A politician at the helm of NEDA



July 25th, 2008 at 10:55 pm

Speaking of Political Butterflies, I wrote in my book:

The May 2007 midterm elections of Congressmen, Senators and local officials offer an uneasy paradox of how people of diverse and conflicting political or personal persuasions can make temporary alliances for a united ticket to improve their chances of being elected to the positions they are running for only to bolt the alliance after elections and go their own destructive separate ways.

Political parties are never defined by a distinct set of political beliefs and economic platforms that distinguishes one from the other. They are hodge-podge of non-partisan or overly partisan individuals fueled purely by personal ambition and offering their individual wisdom or lack of it as the complete recipe for the salvation of the nation.”

Microsoft Encarta describes political parties in the Philippines this way:

“Political parties in the Philippines are extensions of the key politicians who control them, rather than institutions focused on particular ideologies or political viewpoints. Political loyalties are given to individuals, and rarely to the parties. Politicians often switch party allegiances for personal gain or regional advantage.”

Most of our politicians, are lacking in depth sense of patriotism but filled with selfish opportunism. But lo and behold, our people often mistake one for the other.

Oh boy, we are totally screwed!!!

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