BBM as Competing Agriculture: Advantages and Disadvantages

PRESIDENT-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. will be the nation’s first president to simultaneously serve as secretary of agriculture. It can have its advantages, but it also has serious disadvantages and even risks.

There are three precedents for a president holding a portfolio while in office, but only for the post of defense secretary: Manuel Quezon (five months in 1941 just before the war); Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. (one year to January 1967); and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (for one month in 2003 and two months until February 1, 2007).

In a way, however, BBM is following in the footsteps of his father, who assumed the defense position as soon as he became president on December 31, 1965, only to relinquish it about a year later in January 1967.

While Arroyo twice became Secretary of Defense because she needed time to find the right person for the job, BBM seems to have decided to take on the agriculture job as a governance decision.

“I think the problem in the agricultural sector is serious enough that I have decided to take on the portfolio,” he said the other day. “This will not only clearly show what high priority we place on the agricultural sector, but also, from a practical point of view, to move things forward quickly.”

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Leading the agriculture department, surprisingly, is a position BBM is best qualified for, given its experience in this sector. He is the first Philippine president to have spent most of his political career – 12 years as governor, six as vice-governor and three as representative – in an agricultural province, Ilocos Norte. The province is a microcosm of Philippine agriculture as its dominant crop is rice and maize, with tobacco, a cash crop, as a third product, but rapidly declining in importance due to drastically weakening demand global and local tobacco industry. Reflecting the small farm characteristic of the Philippine agricultural sector, the average size of Ilocos farms is around 1 hectare.

Crucial

The agricultural sector remains crucial in the country, representing 10% of GDP and 25% of employment. What makes it more important than its contribution to the economy is the fact that the majority of poor Filipinos are farmers (32%) and fishermen (26%). Some 24% of Filipinos living in rural areas are poor, in stark contrast to the 9% poor in urban areas.

In this position, he would have a hands-on feel for the Ministry of Agriculture, one of the largest bureaucracies. Little known to most Filipinos, with very little documentation and reporting for these as it is petty corruption, corruption in the department is widespread, with most Filipinos experience in corruption are those involving its agencies. Why are the fertilizer and rice tycoons among the wealthiest, but hidden, tycoons in the country?

BBM, as Secretary of Agriculture, could therefore use his experience there as a model to rid the whole government of corruption and reform it to do its job of delivering services, even lowering the prices of certain products.

However, BBM actually having two jobs has its drawbacks and risks. The presidency of this still third-world nation is a full-time job even in normal times. But we are not in normal times, with skyrocketing gas prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising inflation in the United States and Europe being passed on to us almost automatically, and the prospect of a global recession of the magnitude or worse of the economic crisis of 2008-2009.

Macroeconomic

BBM cannot simply leave macroeconomic management to its economics team, as it requires a multi-faceted approach, some of which only it can undertake, such as a call as president to Saudi Arabia not to does not raise the price of the oil it sells to the Philippines. Another example: only BBM can implore big industries, especially distributors of petroleum products, to moderate their greed. Only BBM can sit down with lawmakers to work with them to pass legislation that will help shield the country from the impact of a global economic downturn, like Arroyo did when she asked Congress to enact the P1 trillion economic stimulus law, which was crucial in our country’s resilience to the global crisis of 2008-2009. Another huge job that BBM needs to undertake is to enact legislation that would create a mechanism for stabilizing the prices of petroleum products, like the Petroleum Price Stabilization Fund (OPSF) that his father created.

For the president, taking on the task of leading a department could be like the captain of a passenger plane “simultaneously” taking on the job of flight engineer. As his attention would be divided, both tasks would suffer, with potentially fatal consequences for dozens of air passengers. This is the reason why only three presidents so far in our history have assumed departmental portfolios.

BBM as Agricultural Secretary is easier said than done. BBM alone has exclusive power to sign appointments for 2,000 senior positions (from secretaries to administrators, boards of dozens of government companies) and 3,000 other less senior positions. He can’t be too careful as crooks and even pink saboteurs will flock to Malacañang claiming they want to serve the country. Any new president would need at least six months to figure out what needs to be done and give proper direction to his officials.

Commuting between Department of Agriculture offices on the Elliptical Road in Quezon City and Malacañang, even with escorts, would take at best at least an hour round trip to BBM – very significant executive time would be wasted, unless than he gets in a van where he can have his meetings. Commuting between Malacañang and the department will be a security nightmare that will require a huge security force to secure the avenues and roads he would have to take. If it is the agriculture officials who travel to Malacañang to meet with BBM, they are simply the ones who will lose an execution time, unescorted, of at least three hours.

Why not convince the vice-president, Sara Duterte-Carpio, to be secretary for agriculture instead? Vice-mayor then mayor of Davao City, the urban center of an immense agricultural region, she would have more meaning for the problems of agriculture than for education. As Vice President, BBM can ask Sara to consult with him often regarding her work there.

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