Clearly irked by criticism of his pronouncement that the United States must pay if it wants its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the Philippines to continue, President Duterte advised Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Panfilo Lacson to read the Constitution.
The basic law of the land, he said, vests foreign policy “in the President and not with the senators or the vice president.”
Robredo and Lacson had earlier criticized the President’s demand for more money from the United States, saying this could give the impression that the Philippines is “a nation of extortionists.”
This prompted Duterte to fire back, saying the vice president is a lawyer who forgets her law background every time she opens her mouth.
“Being a lawyer, she should know that the Constitution says that, that is my function. It is not their function,” he added.
It is an argument we have heard many times before from the President’s mouthpieces.
“Under our laws and Constitution, the chief architect of foreign policy is President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and not any interloper who probably wants to be president,” Solicitor General Jose Calida said in 2019 amid criticism of the administration’s policy of appeasement toward Beijing.
His chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, added: If the critics would insist on what they want, then maybe they should run for president in the next elections so that when they become president, everything that they want, they can do if they are also the chief architect.”
To be clear, the Constitution does suggest that foreign policy is the domain of the President because it is in this office that executive power is vested (Article VII, Sections 1 and 17). And it does grant the President the power to contract or guarantee foreign loans on behalf of the country (Article VII, Section 20). But there is no specific provision that says that foreign policy is the sole responsibility of the President. The words “chief architect of foreign policy” appear nowhere in the Constitution.
In fact, some provisions clearly put limits to that power.
For example, Congress, by a vote of two-thirds of both Houses in joint session assembled, voting separately, shall have the sole power to declare the existence of a state of war (Article VI, Section 23).
The Constitution also says no treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate. The tricky part is that the Palace does not see the VFA as a treaty; thus, in its eyes, the Senate has no role in its retention or abrogation.
Moreover, the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to review and reverse any treaty or international or executive agreement if its constitutionality is questioned. On this, the question on what role the Senate plays in cancelling treaties is still pending in the Supreme Court. Thus, the Upper Chamber itself isn’t sure of its footing insofar as its authority over treaties is concerned.
Curiously, neither the President nor his mouthpieces like to quote another constitutional responsibility. This is the one that states: “The State shall protect the rights of subsistence fishermen, especially of local communities, to the preferential use of local marine and fishing resources, both inland and offshore…. The State shall also protect, develop, and conserve such resources. The protection shall extend to offshore fishing grounds of subsistence fishermen against foreign intrusion…” (Article XIII, Section 7).
Beyond these constitutional arguments, the suggestion from the President’s men that one needs to be elected president before criticizing the administration’s foreign policy initiatives is silly and childish. To use an analogy they might understand, a homeowner doesn’t have to be an architect to find a house ugly. In fact, the homeowner who hires an errant architect has all the reason to complain.