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Barry Gutierrez: Designated Survivor, Quezon, and Presidential Succession

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Social media exploded a few days ago in response to the news that a “designated successor” bill had been filed in Congress, a proposal which essentially empowered the President to choose a potential successor.

The bill, HB 4062 introduced by Quezon City Second District Representative Precious Hipolito Castelo, ignited a firestorm of criticism, with many condemning both the proposal and the unfortunate author. A similar bill yet slightly different bill, SB 982, was also filed in the Senate by Senator Panfilo Lacson.

Much of the online criticism against these bills, and, perhaps not incidentally, their authors, was anchored on their supposed disregard for the Constitutionally prescribed order of succession, found in Article VII, Section 8 of the Constitution. This mandates that the Vice President, or in case of her inability, the Senate President and then the Speaker of the House, shall succeed as President in case of the latter’s death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation.

A cursory reading of both bills, however, readily reveals that this particular charge is unfounded. Neither bill proposes to set aside the Constitutional succession (since to even propose to do so would immediately render both unconstitutional), but rather, provides for a mechanism by which a person could assume the Presidency in the event the President and all three of his Constitutionally designated successors are unable to assume or perform the duties of the office. This contemplates an extraordinary and catastrophic scenario where all these high officials have either died or become incapacitated. In fact, Senator Lacson quite candidly, perhaps TOO candidly, admitted that in proposing his measure, he was “inspired” by the Netflix series Designated Survivor, whose major premise involved an attack on the State of the Union Address that resulted in the deaths of the US President and top national leadership.

But far-fetched scenarios notwithstanding, Congress is, in fact, Constitutionally mandated, under Sections 7 and 8 of Article VII, to enact a law providing for a process of succession in the event none of the designated Constitutional successors can assume the Presidency. The more important query as regards the Castelo and Lacson bills therefore, is how reasonable their proposed order of succession is.

HB 4062 proposes a straightforward solution: The President chooses a “designated successor” from among the members of the Cabinet before any gathering where he, the Vice President, the Senate President, and the Speaker of the House will be in attendance, and in the unlikely event that a Designated Survivor scenario then transpires, that Cabinet member becomes President.

SB 982 likewise mandates that a “designated successor” be named from among the Cabinet before any similar gathering of top officials, but adds that such successor will be preceded in succession order by the 1) Senator who has served the longest, followed by 2) the Representative who has served the longest.

One problem in both these bills is that they empower the President to choose, from among over a dozen Cabinet members, who will be his successor. A similar law in the United States, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, already prescribes the succession order of officials – which includes Cabinet members – to the Presidency. At present, after the Vice President, 17 officials, starting with the Speaker of the House and ending with the Secretary of Homeland Security, are designated as successors in order of precedence under this law.

A similar process was adopted in the Philippines during the Commonwealth Period. Commonwealth Act 68 provided that the National Assembly (the precursor to our present day Congress) would elect an Acting President in the event both the President and Vice President were incapacitated or failed to qualify for the office. Pending this vote, the most senior Department Secretary according to the Administrative Code would be temporary President.

This rule was amended by President Manuel Quezon in 1941, when he issued Executive Order 390 under his extraordinary war powers. EO 390 prescribed the following order of succession after the Vice President:

Secretary to the President
Secretary of Finance
Secretary of National Defense
Secretary of Justice
Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce
Secretary of Public Works and Communications
Secretary of Public Instruction
Secretary of Labor
Secretary of Health and Public Welfare

This, however, changed again with RA 181 enacted by Congress in 1947. This law established the current rule that succession shall follow from the Vice President, to the Senate President, to the House Speaker, and then finally to a Senator or Representative elected by Congress in joint session.

It must be noted that NONE of these laws provide for a Presidential choice as regards a successor. The reason should be obvious: kings and queens choose their own successors, democratically elected Presidents do not. It goes against the very foundation of a democratic republic that a successor is designated, not by law, but by Presidential discretion.

We cannot argue against a succession law that prepares us for a worst-case scenario, no matter how improbable or unlikely. But we must definitely insist that such a law serve the function of making our democratic republic stronger and more stable, and not regress it into a monarchy.

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