Episode 25: Wasted

(Author’s Note #1: This article originally appeared on the Philippine Online Chronicles yesterday. As per my creative commons license agreement with POC, I’m allowed to repost my article anywhere, any time after 24 hours of its initial posting on POC, hence I am posting it here now. Not to mention that the POC website is having some connectivity issues lately. At the end of the article, there will be some additional notes.)

The day after the Aug. 25 “Million People March” (MPM), writer Marlen Ronquillo wrote about how he had “opted out” of participating in the Luneta rally, and his reasons for doing so. He raised excellent points on the merits of the PDAF system, and challenged the MPM participants to answer the simplest question: “Now, what?”

Unfortunately, 37 days later, the answer seems to be: “Let’s protest some more.”

Granted, the “coordinators” (their term, not mine) behind the next MPM event this coming Friday have released Unity Statement 2.0, where they make specific calls for government action. Compared to Unity Statement 1.0, however, there seems to be only one salient difference: this time around, they are calling on Filipinos to “launch and share their initiatives to press for transparency in all levels of government and in all kinds of government transactions.”

Wasn’t that what Aug. 26 was about? It was a chance to show our collective anger, yes, but asn’t it also “an opportunity to have fruitful discussions of diverse opinions about what to do now with the pork barrel?” Are we saying that after 38 days, we *still* haven’t decided what alternative to “pork barrel” we want to propose? Are we saying that after 38 days, we still “sharing ideas?” Are we saying that after 38 days, only now are we making “concrete calls to action?”

What a sad waste of 38 days.

Much has changed since Aug. 26. In this time period, The House of Representatives has removed PDAF from the 2014 General Appropriations Act. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are set to put the Freedom of Information Bill up for debate, arguably one of the best measures to protect public funds from improper disbursement and use.  Janet Napoles has surrendered to authorities. Plunder charges against Senators Juan Ponce-Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla, and Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and 35 other accused, including Janet Napoles, have been filed with the Ombudsman.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s quite a bit of abolishing, accounting, and making people accountable already being done.

~ ~ ~

                Of course, there’s the argument that pork barrel, i.e. all lump-sum funds “subject to discretionary use and/or allocation by officials in all branches and in all levels of the government,” must be abolished, so that the money will serve “not just the greedy few.” I’m not entirely sure I understand this argument.

Lump-sum funds necessarily include calamity and quick-response funds. It also includes contingency funds, which by their nature cannot be subject to line-item appropriations. Does this mean we want government to be entirely inflexible as to what can be funded, and where and when the funds can be disbursed?

It is likewise difficult to ignore that lump-sum funds are still subject to legal standards and requirements for their disbursement. A prime example of this are the Malampaya funds, whose disbursement is based on Presidential Decree No. 910, a decree enacted by the late President Marcos under his lawmaking powers during Martial Law. Section 8 of the law states: “All fees, revenues and receipts of the Board from any and all sources… shall form part of a Special Fund to be used to finance energy resource development and exploitation programs and projects of the government and for such other purposes as may be hereafter directed by the President (Emphasis mine).” If there is any danger that the Malampaya funds can be misused, then the danger is inherent in the law itself, not in the discretion exercised, as shown by the use of the Aquino administration of the Malampaya funds solely for energy-related projects and purchases as was intended by the law.

In what may perhaps be attributed to a “mass pork hysteria,” in which pork barrel critics have focused merely on the “discretionary” nature of the fund rather than the totality of the circumstances surrounding the funds’ disbursement and use, many pork barrel critics have forgotten the key finding of the recent Commission on Audit Special Audit Report: the strict processes in place at the time that could ensure proper use and disbursement were completely ignored. Put another way, the problem is not that the funds are “discretionary,” but that corrupt public officials – who we vote into office time and again – abuse this discretion and disregard the law to selfish ends.

~ ~ ~

                To be fair, the #ScrapPork Network’s statement does say that it urges Filipinos “to continue the discourse on the best alternative to take its place.” Unfortunately, what this tells us is that 1) there is no “best alternative” yet being put forward, and 2) we’re not even at the level where we have viable alternatives to propose, as earlier pointed out.

To my mind, the clear long-term solution seems to be better legislation enacting clearer, stricter rules on project creation/proposal/nomination, funding and implementation, as well as clear guidelines on the use and release of contingent and other lump-sum funds. By extension, legislation is needed to give the COA more teeth to audit public funds and aggregate the data at a faster pace. And as mentioned, passing the Freedom of Information law to allow willing and capable citizens to check for themselves if public funds are being used properly on the local and perhaps even national levels.

Yet, we are focused on PNoy and his “pork,” demanding that he unilaterally give it up, because: “Pork baaaaaaad.” Wha…?

On this score, I wonder why party-list groups such as the Makabayan and Sanlakas have foregone their roles as legislators and have instead opted to go back to rallying. Is their much-ballyhooed Minority Alliance really so impotent that it cannot pass meaningful fiscal reform laws?

I wrote back in Aug. 25 that MPM was being “hijacked.” At the time I was misunderstood; I didn’t mean that the militant Left would physically take control, but that they would steer the MPM message away from its fundamental core of government reform, and towards “PNoy is bad.” This Friday’s rally is proof that the hijack is complete.

(Author’s Note #2: The POC version of this article included a rather large “Million People March” poster-image cutting my article in half, where the “~ ~ ~” appears before the last 5 paragraphs.” It also includes an “Editor’s Note” containing the following text:

Editor’s note: I asked @natoreyes on twitter if the SMS belonged to Bayan Muna. He replied: “pag kami po ang nagtext, we use org as signatory. Yung mga anonymous texts, not ours po.” For more details , refer to X X X

Without going into a deep analysis of Mr. Reyes’ “disavowal” – which will be done in the next blog entry – later in the day, Bayan and Sanlakas spokespersons went on ANC and effectively said that they do, in fact, want PNoy ousted from office, while inviting people to join the MPM rally later today. Unfortunately, ANC has yet to upload the video of the interview; however, @leahnavarro and @MayTinaMoran both tweeted about seeing the program and watching the spokespersons making the statements. This blog entry will be updated once a copy of the video is located.)

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