State of the Nation Address (SONA): Constitutional Duty or Colonial Hangover?

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Looking ahead on Monday, July 25, a historic oddity and extravaganza in the official calendar: the spectacle of a newly sworn in president presenting a joint session of Congress and the nation with a State of the Nation (SONA) report after barely a month in power, as well as his plans to rule the nation.

President Marcos will report on the results of the programs and policies that were enacted under his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, whose term expired the same day he (Marcos) took office, June 30, 2022.

The report could logically have been better presented in a farewell speech by President Duterte as the official, but he did not deliver one. He instead confided his legacy to publicists and his supporters in the media. Philippine presidents don’t usually bother with farewells unlike American presidents, some of whom have delivered their most emotional farewell speeches. Our presidents, on the other hand, fade away unless called into action by a new political project (like Joseph Estrada who returned to run for mayor of Manila and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who nominated for a seat in the House and then served a stint as Speaker of the House).

Therefore, President Marcos in his SONA 2022 will be driven by circumstances to focus his attention primarily on setting the agenda and enumerating his legislative priorities, which have been the raison d’être of this constitutional duty of the President.

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No state of the nation clause

The phrase “state of the nation” is nowhere to be found in our Constitution.

The Charter explicitly provides in Article XVII. Article 23: “The President addresses the Congress at the opening of its ordinary session. He may also appear before it at any other time.”

This is reinforced by Article VI, Section 15 in the Provision of a Legislative Department: “Congress meets annually on the fourth Monday in July for its regular session, unless a different date is fixed by law , and the President may call a special session at any time.”

How then did this event turn into a state of the nation address? How did the President’s State of the Nation Address become the most ornate, well-attended, and most contested event in our public life?

American State of the Union Clause

The disconcerting truth is that SONA seems to have entered our political traditions and practices through a process of colonial transmission and Filipino adaptation.

SONA owes its parentage to a “state of the union” clause in the United States Constitution.

The United States Constitution states in Article II, Section 3: “The President shall from time to time give information to Congress respecting the state of the union and recommend to them for consideration such action as he deems necessary and timely.”

The State of the Union Address (sometimes abbreviated as SOTU) is an annual message delivered by the President of the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress near the beginning of each calendar year about the current state of the nation. The state of the union address typically includes reports on the budget, economy, current affairs, agenda, accomplishments, and legislative priorities and proposals of the president.

The US president’s state of the union address has evolved slowly and tentatively.

During America’s first century, the president mostly submitted only a written report to Congress. After 1913, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, began the regular practice of delivering the speech to Congress in person in order to rally support for the President’s program.

Beginning in 1981, Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, began the practice of newly appointed presidents delivering a speech to Congress during their first year in office, but without designating that speech as a “state of the art.” official ‘onion’.

Although not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson, with the notable exception of Herbert Hoover, has delivered at least one state of the union report in the form of a speech. delivered before a joint session of Congress. Previously, most presidents presented the state of the union in the form of a written report.

Since Franklin Roosevelt, the state of the union is usually given each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. Newly sworn in presidents typically deliver a speech to Congress in February of their first year in office, but that speech is not officially considered a “state of the union”.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /State_of_the_Union – cite_note-CRS2-5

What started as a communication between the President and Congress has actually become a communication between the President and the people of the United States.

A creation of the Jones Act

In the Philippines, the state of the nation address as an annual practice began during the era of the American Commonwealth occupation.

The Jones Act, enacted in 1916, was the first instance where a report on the Philippine Islands had to be submitted. However, the law only required a report from the Governor General to an executive office assigned by the President of the United States. It was in the form of a written document that dealt with the transactions and movements of the island government.

When the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established and the 1935 Constitution was enacted, it provided for an annual report by the President of the Philippines to Congress:

“The President will from time to time give to Congress information respecting the state of the nation and will recommend for its consideration such measures as he may deem necessary and expedient.” The wording was almost identical to the SOTU clause of the US Constitution,

The first official State of the Nation Address was delivered by President Manuel L. Quezon on June 16, 1936 at the Manila Legislative Building. HistOfficalGaz-2

President Quezon delivered his last State of the Nation address on January 31, 1941, before the start of World War II.

With the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945 and the restoration of Commonwealth government, the now bicameral Congress of the Philippines met on June 9, 1945, the first time since their election in 1941.

The last speech of the Commonwealth was delivered by President Manuel Roxas on June 3, 1946. President Roxas would later deliver the first SONA of the Third Philippine Republic before the First Congress on January 27, 1947.

The tradition of delivering SONA on the fourth Monday in January ended in 1972, when from 1973 to 1977 President Ferdinand E. Marcos delivered the speech each September 21 – the official anniversary of his declaration of martial law.

President Marcos began delivering the speech at the Batasang Pambansa complex on June 12, 1978 during the opening session of the interim Batasang Pambansa.

With the re-establishment of the Congress in 1987, President Corazon Aquino delivered her first SONA in the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa. All his successors in office have since delivered their respective addresses in the same place.

An annual ritual

In the United States and the Philippines, the state of the union address and the state of the nation address have been elevated to ritual status.

According to the authors, Joseph Pika and John Anhony Malese in their book The Politics of the Presidency (CQ Press, Washington DC, 2010), the state of the union message allows the president to outline an agenda for Congress and the nation.

President Wilson resurrected the ceremony after more than a century of disuse, and today it is an annual occasion for great drama and solemn declarations.

Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, the cabinet and diplomatic corps, along with distinguished visitors, gather in the chamber of the House and chat expectantly until the Sergeant-at-Arms announces the arrival of the president.

After a formal introduction by the Speaker of the House, the Speaker delivers his prepared speech,

After the speech, a phalanx of congressional leaders accompany the president as he leaves the room, and members line the way to shake hands or simply touch the president.

The Philippine administration has taken this ritual from the US government and added its own touches of excess and enthusiasm.

The SONA, which is broadcast live nationwide, serves as a means of informing the nation about its current economic, political and social situation. It is also a way for the president to summarize his plans and program of government both for a particular year and until the end of his term.

At this time of year, all civil servants and spouses are gearing up for a ride in the limelight. The new dispensation is keen to do its best at the event as 36 years have passed since a member of the Marcos family last held the driver’s seat in government.

The radical left and anti-Marcos opposition are also keen to show their stuff and show their mettle on July 25, by staging protest marches and dropping bombs meant to shake up the usually unflappable Bongbong Marcos.

The thing to remember though is that the ritual of hearing the president’s state of the nation address during the inaugural session of Congress is a show of unity between presidents and congress, and a show of respect for the office of the presidency. Great leaders imbue the office with dignity and respect.

The antics of protesters and critics cannot distract from this reality of our political culture.

The president will be heard by the people.

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