APRIL 22, 2006 (STAR) By Jose Rodel Clapano - Setting the stage for further confrontation between Malacañang and the opposition in Congress, Solicitor General Eduardo Nachura said yesterday that the Supreme Court ruling on Executive Order 464 is not yet final, and that government officials, police and military officers can still snub congressional hearings.

Nachura said his office is studying the High Tribunal’s decision and will seek reconsideration of certain points.

"We will file a motion for reconsideration on certain issues in the decision. Congress has no reason yet to celebrate because the Supreme Court’s decision is not yet final and executory. If you will read the decision it is not at all that bad for the government," he said without giving further details.

Voting 14-0, the Supreme Court nullified portions of EO 464, which had barred officials from attending congressional hearings without President Arroyo’s prior consent.

The court ruled Thursday that Congress has a right to compel officials to appear in hearings for testimony sought "in aid of legislation."

It held that only the president enjoys executive privilege but even the president must state the reasons for invoking the privilege.

However, the high court upheld Malacañang’s right to ban officials from attending congressional hearings that are not related to pending bills.

Both the Arroyo administration and the opposition claimed victory in the ruling, raising speculation that the Supreme Court had played it safe.

Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban said there was no political pressure and the ruling "speaks for itself."

"No political pressure of any sort. The only winner here is justice. We decided based on what the constitution mandates and on the basis of law. We are not particular on who lost or won," Panganiban told reporters in an interview.

Both sides have 15 days to file a motion for reconsideration.

Nachura said the government was generally happy with the decision although his office would still have to study specific items in the nullified provisions that could be appealed.

Government lawyers will meet next week to decide their next move, he said.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo is happy with the ruling but it would be left to Nachura to decide whether to seek reconsideration.

Bunye said the ruling set the parameters in the conduct of congressional inquiries and in preventing lawmakers from using such inquiries in "aid of libel, power play, grandstanding or destabilization."

Opposition lawmakers, on the other hand, said the SC decision backed their contention that EO 464 infringed on the legislative oversight power of Congress and that Mrs. Arroyo could face another impeachment complaint, this time for abuse of power.

Malacañang officials maintained that Mrs. Arroyo did nothing illegal in issuing EO 464.

Mrs. Arroyo survived an impeachment bid last September mainly over accusations that she cheated in the 2004 presidential election.

Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor said there was no basis to impeach Mrs. Arroyo over EO 464 because the order was issued in "good faith."

Mrs. Arroyo would only be in violation of law if she insisted on enforcing EO 464 even after the Supreme Court ruling, Defensor said.

Bunye said the decision was not adverse at all because the court upheld the President’s right to invoke executive privilege.

"The President is glad that the principle of executive privilege has been firmly recognized by the decision. From the very start, the purpose of EO 464 was mainly to uphold the honor and dignity of the executive branch and Cabinet members against unwarranted insult and injury inflicted by congressional inquiries," Bunye said.

He maintained "there was never an intent to curb the public’s right to know."

"We appreciate the fact that the Supreme Court has now laid down the parameters under which inquiries in aid of legislation can no longer be abused" and that the ruling would help both sides exercise responsibility, he said.

"What’s important is that the parameters have been set now and we expect everyone involved to follow the ruling of the Supreme Court," Bunye said. "So we win some, we lose some."

The ruling also proved the Supreme Court’s impartiality, Bunye added, taking note that most serving on the bench are Arroyo appointees.

"Our democracy is strong. We are glad in a way that we see that democracy is alive and well and that our institutions remain strong as well."

Pandora’s box

Arroyo allies in the House of Representatives warned the opposition yesterday against launching "political witch-hunts" in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Deputy Speaker Gerry Salapuddin and Cebu City Rep. Antonio Cuenco said they expect opposition senators and congressmen to use the High Tribunal’s decision in attacking the administration further.

"They are already gearing up to give the administration a headache using the process of congressional investigation," they said.

Reacting to the court ruling, Minority Leader Francis Escudero said it was a vindication of the opposition’s stand that EO 464, which banned executive officials and employees from attending congressional hearings, particularly Senate inquiries, violated the Constitution.

He said if the administration has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear about congressional investigations.

Salapuddin and Cuenco said they expect opposition lawmakers to summon officials whom Mrs. Arroyo had earlier prohibited from attending inquiries.

"The Supreme Court ruling is a great setback to the administration. It will open the lid of a Pandora’s box that will be exploited to the hilt by opposition solons in the Senate and the House," said Salapuddin.

"Personally, I am worried of this development as it will aggravate present concerns we have like the high oil prices in the world market and the negative image we have abroad," he said.

Cuenco appealed to opposition lawmakers to be "more circumspect and not to use Congress as a tool for political wrangling with the Palace."

"Let’s leave the proceedings of both houses for more productive legislation," he said.

Opposition congressmen supported the stand of the Senate on EO 464. The lead petitioners in the case were 17 senators led by Senate President Franklin Drilon.

Rep. Roilo Golez of Parañaque, who defected to Escudero’s minority bloc last year after joining then mounting calls for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation, said his former colleagues in the majority should be ashamed of themselves.

Administration members showed "timidity" and failed to defend their institution from the brazen assault of Malacañang via EO 464, he said.

He said the Palace sought to curtail the powers not only of the Senate but of the entire Congress as well.

Another minority member, Rep. Joel Villanueva of the party-list group Citizens Battle Against Corruption, suggested that Mrs. Arroyo and her legal advisers apologize to the Filipino people for her issuance of an order that they knew was constitutionally questionable.

Bunye could not say whether the court’s decision could now help resolve the conflict between the Palace and the Senate, but pointed out that this could serve as a reminder to both sides to focus on their duties as expected by the people.

"Maybe what we can ask for now is for the legislative department to start working on pending legislation instead of concentrating too much on investigation," Bunye said.

EO 464, issued on Sept. 28, angered the political opposition and Arroyo critics, who accused her of trying to cover up the electoral fraud allegations hounding her since last year as well as other alleged wrongdoing.

Since last June the opposition has been waging a campaign to oust Mrs. Arroyo, charging her with cheating to win the 2004 election.

Mrs. Arroyo has denied any wrongdoing and last year her allies in the House of Representatives defeated an impeachment complaint against her.

Since then, opposition lawmakers have called investigations into the alleged election cheating and other supposed anomalies.

Mrs. Arroyo has charged that these are covert attempts to shift the battle to legislative inquiries aimed at undermining her administration.

The Senate is currently conducting several inquiries into alleged administration corruption and other wrongdoing.

Mrs. Arroyo’s order, issued after two Philippine Marine officers appeared at a Senate investigation of alleged fraud in the 2004 election, worsened already strained relations between her and the Senate, stalling the government’s 2006 budget and an anti-terrorism bill.

Next week, the Supreme Court is due to rule on another contentious Arroyo order — Proclamation 1017 which declared a state of national emergency she invoked for a week on Feb. 24, after the military said it foiled a coup plot by rogue officers, communist rebels and some opposition politicians.

Mrs. Arroyo’s foes accuse her of seeking to emulate draconian powers used by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. — With Aurea Calica, Jess Diaz, Delon Porcalla, Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved