Congress

Skewering the Pork Barrel

The system known as pork barrel was first introduced to Filipinos nearly a century ago by the American colonial “tutelage” in the ways of democratic representation. Needless to say, in all this time that pork has been on the table for our legislators, the pendulum has simply swung from one way of treating it to another: from it being proposed individually and inserted in line agency budgets to it being listed as a separate item with fixed allocated amounts per house and per member.

With the present move to abolish Priority Development Assistance Fund by President Aquino and his allies in Congress, pork has merely caused the pendulum to swing back to where it was originally. The institution of pork remains, it is just the institutional arrangements to skewer it that have changed. The same arguments favouring the preservation of the pork barrel that have been there since the 1920’s have also been put forward by the present regime. In light of this one could say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

If I were to assess the chances of us abolishing pork permanently, I would place the odds of that happening at a million to one, perhaps a billion. Even after the #MillionPeopleMarch and the congressional hearings over the misuse of pork in both houses, it does not seem likely that we can do away with this institution for very long. A momentary cessation to placate the public’s revulsion and to allow patron-client networks to reconfigure is possible, but eventually the practice of pork barrelling will re-emerge in some shape or form.

When you scan democratic countries around the world, you will find that the system of allowing local concerns to trump national interests emerges everywhere. In Australia, you will find inordinate amounts of public money being spent in marginal seats in the lower house which could swing the outcome of an election one way or another. In the US, congressional earmarks will be incorporated in specific pieces of legislation to win support from legislators whose votes are needed to get it to pass.

Even in relatively corruption-free Norway, the disproportionate number of regional country seats allows them to get a larger proportion of public investment even though they account for a much smaller share of the population. But on the flip side, the existence of pork or patronage in these countries, does not lead to a total breakdown of accountability and honesty that we see in the Philippine setting.

It is in this context that many are now asking what is the proper way forward for the administration given the rubric of daang matuwid (righteous path) that it has constructed for itself. Many are wondering whether in its haste to prosecute Mrs Arroyo for corruption, it used pork to gain support in Congress and whether it allowed some of the worst forms of abuse to persist under its watch.

If this is the most honest administration that the Philippines can produce in a generation, imagine what will happen when it steps down from office in 2016?

Many see the abandonment of pork as a litmus test which this administration needs to pass. The question is for how long it can afford to do this. By 2016, the Liberal Party will be facing an uphill battle to prevent the seeming juggernaut of Vice President Jejomar Binay from claiming the presidency.

Given Mr Binay’s expansive control of the central business district of Makati including the Fort Global City that formerly was under Taguig, his ability to raise a rich war chest for his candidacy with which to rain down patronage on supporters from the masses is formidable.

For the LP to remain competitive in that race, it will have to match the campaign spend that Mr Binay is sure to unleash. The only way it can do that without reinstating pork or plundering the national coffers would be to enact some form of campaign finance reform that would allow state funding of political parties based on their share of votes cast at the last election.

Given the advantage of incumbency, the LP will be in a better position given the turncoats that have sided with it since the 2010 presidential elections which it won. The 2013 elections could well be the high water mark of its membership at the local level if it gets thrown out of the Palace in 2016.

Although I have couched this policy proposal in terms of the politics of 2016 and the interests of the incumbents, I believe that such a reform will provide a more permanent solution to the abuse of pork than existing proposals out there. Introducing bottom-up budgeting using central authority and central funds goes against the very principle of BUB.

Having a Freedom of Information law will help enhance accountability, but is very much reliant on a post-audit and ad hoc investigative process than a systemic one. The longevity of pork abolition can be called into question simply because it is based on the voluntary restraint exercised by politicians.

In the long-run, what will allow legislators to refrain from the abuse of pork is if they have the support of strong political parties that are able to deliver platforms and programs of government rather than promises, and are able to finance their local campaigns with money sourced in a transparent manner from taxpayers. If by abusing their privileges, they would risk losing such support, then a powerful incentive would be in place to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The threat of prosecution might not be enough to deter politicians from engaging in the worst forms of corruption. If caught, they would simply use their power, influence and money to avoid a jail sentence.

In the short run, it will pay for the administration and its allies in congress to propose the abolition of pork. In the medium to long run however, they will have to phase in reforms that address the root cause of the problem. Pork in and of itself is not it.

It is just a manifestation of a much deeper problem–the costliness of elections and the absence of strong political parties, which reduces our politics into a semi-feudal state comprised of political dynasties which do not distinguish personal from public resources, and as such engage in plunder to dole out patronage during elections to perpetuate themselves in power.

PDAF, BUB, August 26 and 2016

President Benigno S. Aquino III calls for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund at the President’s Hall of Malacanang Palace on Friday, (August 23). The announcement was made in the aftermath of the alleged Php10B pork barrel scam. (Photo by Gil Nartea/ Lauro Montellano Jr./ Malacanang Photo Bureau)

Just as he did with the RH Bill, the president came late to the party and led from behind in the scandal  involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of Congress by belatedly bowing to public calls for its abolition.  Although as Winnie Monsod noted he did not indicate this meant the abolition of all forms of pork barrel. With nationwide protests slated for August 26, his administration could not afford to be seen on the wrong side of history, not after mouthing anti-corruption slogans like Daang Matuwid and Kung Walang Kurap, Walang Mahirap in the 2010 and 2013 elections.

This is perhaps his only out, after a former treasury chief showed how large his own discretionary funds are, dwarfing that of Congress. His initial tone deaf and dismissive response to public calls for PDAF abolition threatened to turn it into his “Flor Contemplacion moment”. This is a reference to the hanging of a domestic helper in Singapore by that name accused and convicted of killing her ward. The Ramos government’s lethargic response at the time to seek a commutation of her death sentence and vigorously raise a diplomatic protest with the Singaporean government was judged inadequate and subsequently led to virulent protests.

What the angry twittering masses behind the August 26 rally fail to grasp, however, and this I believe should be credited to the president, is that the scale of congressional pork barrel would not have even been known if he had not taken the decision to make it more transparent in the budget. Secondly, the Commission on Audit special report conducted under the tearful eye of Ms Grace Pullido-Tan, its chair, would not have even been possible without President Aquino’s leadership.

The problem was the Palace’s foot-dragging made it seem part of the problem rather than the solution. At first it responded to the concerns of the masses over the alleged Php 10 billion scam involving Janet Napoles’s syndicate of NGOs by window dressing, making the DSWD the accrediting agency for NGOs receiving PDAF allocations. This was wrong since as the COA report revealed, releasing public funds to NGOs without an appropriations law or ordinance violates the government’s own procurement policy.

The COA report, incomplete as it was gave an indication as to the scale and scope of corruption and abuse. About 75 per cent of audited PDAF went to NGOs. Thus, the 192 members of the 14th Congress that were found to have engaged in the practice are in fact liable. The DOJ does not even have to prove that the funds were diverted back to them.

The senators and congressmen who want to wash their hands clean by either saying the money was liquidated appropriately or that monitoring of funds is the sole function of the executive branch don’t have a leg to stand on. The only defence they can mount is that their signatures in authorising the allocation of PDAF to those NGOs were forged as 22 of them have done.

Even assuming their signatures were forged, why would it have taken them so long to protest against it? It stands to reason that anyone who had P70 to P200M allocated to them would be adamant in getting it released for their use. Why has it taken them 3-5 years to denounce the siphoning off of their PDAF? If anything, they would be negligible for allowing it to go on for so long.

So any which way you look at it, the legislators in question have something to answer for. True, the DBM’s record-keeping has been found wanting. In fact the COA report only covered a mere 39 per cent of the total P115 billion worth of PDAF released from 2007 to 2009 because DBM could not even identify correctly the legislators who approved the majority of funds amounting to some P70.4 billion.

Even so, the legislators that have been rightly identified need to apologise to the public for allocating their PDAF to NGOs and take leave from their party if they are currently in public office or loose whatever committee chairmanships and privileges they have enjoyed as such.

British and Canadian examples

In the UK parliamentary allowance scandal of 2009, both PM Gordon Brown and Opposition Leader David Cameron issued apologies to the British public for the excesses committed by members of their parties who used housing allowances to invest in the property market. Subsequently, an independent body was set up to determine the compensation and allowances for MPs, and the disbursement of the same was made more available to the public.

In the current scandal in the Canadian senate, PM Harper’s chief of staff resigned after being implicated, a number of senators were suspended from their party and issued public apologies for their abuse of privileges. In both the UK and Canadian cases, a Freedom of Information request led to uncovering the facts and those that had been found to have abused their privileges were ordered to repay every last penny they had unlawfully charged to the public purse.

The amounts in question ran only in the hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars per representative or senator. In the Philippine case, the amounts run into the billions of pesos (which amounts to millions of dollars!). And yet the legislators in question do not seem to be ashamed in the least. Some of them in fact have the gall to now champion the scrapping of pork, when they in fact have been identified by the COA for certain anomalies in their use of pork, such as Majority Senate Leader Peter Cayetano whose release of P2.7 million to baranggays in Taguig were found to be deficient, and whose wife exceeded her PDAF by P8.5 million.

BUB, another acronym for pork masquerading as reform

The protesters heading for the Rizal Park on August 26 would probably say that there needs to be an investigation and prosecution of those involved in the PDAF scam. The DOJ has said that it will be issuing indictments soon. The case could easily drag on beyond 2016, after the president steps down. The senate and the house seem poised to investigate their use and abuse of PDAF. Senator Cayetano has endorsed former Senator Panfilo Lacson to head an independent body to investigate it, which found support from the President. This was ridiculed by many including Senator Miriam Santiago who questions Lacson’s ability to impartially run the investigation.

The politicisation of the investigations and reform process is becoming a problem. This is precisely what shouldn’t be happening as abuses cut across party-lines. Take the unveiling of a fund associated with the Department of Budget and Management’s Bottom Up Budgeting approach or BUB. This is a fund amounting to P20 billion to be allocated by Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas to local governments. It is no secret that Mr Roxas is the Liberal Party’s presidential nominee to succeed Pres Aquino in 2016. Budget Secretary Abad is the party’s chief ideologue.

The fund’s existence was apparently leaked by congressmen from within the LP. It was reported that many of them were dissatisfied with the manner in which this fund has been set up: to give Mr Roxas the role of a padrino in handing it out. This charge was denied of course by Messrs Roxas and Abad who do not deny the existence of BUB funds but instead say that legislators were supportive of it.

If we needed a reminder for why PDAF and its predecessor CDF (countrywide development funds) came into being, this is it. Pork barrel has evolved through the years from a means for the executive to control congress and get it on its side, to a means by which the legislators can wrest control of patronage from Malacañang by limiting its ability to withhold pork to congress. BUB seems like an attempt by the Palace to retake control, at a time when congressional pork has been abolished.

Just as an aside, what the reaction of local LP stalwarts shows is that party discipline is weak. These legislators probably do not plan to endorse Mr Roxas in 2016. They are probably planning to jump ship again just like they did in 2010 when President Aquino’s lead in the polls was evident. Given the lead Vice President Binay now has in public polls, it would seem they might be hedging their bets both ways, or in the very least, they want to hand out the BUB funds themselves to local officials, to be the sole padrinos in their districts.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Mr Binay has been receiving pork with the president’s blessing, worth P200 million a year, so that this is simply a way of evening up the playing field for Mr Roxas and the Liberal Party. Given that the president has abolished pork (which presumably includes the vice president’s), shouldn’t his heir apparent refuse to use it too? By politicising the bottom-up budgeting approach, a key reform of President Aquino’s administration, Abad and Roxas could be tarnishing their reformist credentials and weakening the very institutions they seek to build.

To 2016 and beyond

A number of prospective presidential and vice presidential contenders could be ruined by this scandal. Senators Bong Bong Marcos, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada all have plans to run for higher office. All were tagged as part of the original PDAF scam. Senator Peter Cayetano may also have plans to run for higher office in 2016 and was also given special mention in the COA report for irregular PDAF releases. Mar Roxas could sully himself if BUB is perceived to be used for political motives.

You might think this is the end of the road for pork, but don’t count pork out, just yet. As Manolo Quezon points out, pork has a funny way of resurfacing under a different guise. Winnie Monsod believes it will revert back to the old way of being hidden, inserted in line agency budgets, as was the practice before President Aquino made it more transparent. This could be an unintended consequence of abolishing PDAF.

What the inchoate masses gathering on August 26 fail to understand is that unless PDAF is replaced with something more suited to a modern democracy, it will be reincarnated in some other shape or form even if the current set of PDAF abusers are put behind bars. The real answer in my view is for the state to provide campaign finance to accredited political parties.

Without such state support, congressmen and senators will find a way to access state funds anyway through some form of pork barrel or worse, they could go underground and raise money through illegal means. Of course they may harass legitimate businesses and rich individuals for donations with adverse consequences for policy making if they win. The piso-piso campaign to raise money has very limited impact in a country with very large disparities in income.

Perhaps the president who until now has been so focused on proving he can make government work, as in he wanted to prove that PDAF could be used properly for good, can now lift his gaze towards undertaking real reform that would not only restore systems to the way they were under some imagined golden age, but transform them above and beyond what they are currently capable of becoming.

To use an automotive analogy, which I am sure the motoring enthusiast in him would appreciate, imagine that you have an old 1950s engine which you have worked so hard to restore, but is still leaking fuel and is inefficient. You can choose to keep fiddling with the old system by adding dashboards with indicators that tell you if fuel is leaking (i.e. making expenditure more transparent) or you might decide to overhaul the engine completely with a new up to date model that injects fuel well and does not leak with indicators that tell you what is happening under the hood.

Having a modern democracy entails campaign finance and political party reform combined with beefed up integrity measures as well as an adequate level of compensation for elective officials to remove the incentive that lead to the plunder of public funds. That is the reality that neither the president, nor the people massing at Rizal park on Monday, have yet realised needs to be confronted if we are to have a sound democracy in the lead up to 2016 and beyond.

Pork to the parties, not the polies!

Why giving money to political parties not politicians is a better idea than scrapping their pork.

It’s been in the headlines for over a week, after the Inquirer broke the story of a scam allegedly involving 23 congressmen and 5 senators and Php10 billion of Philippine Development Assistance funds (aka pork barrel) being siphoned off over more than ten years by a syndicate known as JLN which stands for the initials of the lady accused of heading it.

A member of the syndicate, a close relative, blew the whistle on the boss after a row between them turned ugly. It blew the lid off the issue whether we as a nation still want to maintain the practice of pork barrelling in Congress. If these allegations are proven, it would simply confirm what a lot of Filipinos intuitively know, and that is that these funds or a significant proportion of them, which are meant to benefit local constituents of politicians simply go into their re-election kitty.

Some efforts through the years have been made to make it harder for or limit the amount of corruption or kickbacks from contractors to solons in exchange for awarding projects to them from taking place. The alleged conspirators have been able to defraud Filipino taxpayers by setting up ghost projects involving dummy recipient NGOs issuing fake receipts to help fulfil audit requirements and make everything seem above board with the imprimatur of the legislator who endorses the so-called “development” project.

The Palace, which understandably is concerned, given its reputation for clean and honest government has ordered a full and exhaustive probe through the Department of Justice spearheaded by the National Bureau of Investigation. This would inform and provide evidence to the Ombudsman which has started looking into it. The person accused by the whistle blower appears ready to front the enquiry.

As this developed, public support for abolishing PDAF has mounted. Senator Franklin Drilon, the man expected to assume leadership of the upper house has appeared to welcome the idea. The question will be whether the budget to be approved by Congress will still contain these allotments to its members or not, and whether Malacañang would be able to control the legislative agenda without them.

The opposition for its part considers the investigation a political ploy designed to bash it in the lead up to the 2016 elections.  Three of the five senators linked to the scam, Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Bong Marcos and Bong Revilla seem set to run for higher office. Prior to the 2013 midterm elections, a number of senators from the opposition bloc were engulfed in a similar scandal. The results of the elections seem to indicate that the issue swayed voters not to vote for their kin who were running to join them.

To be fair, the issue is not just about Congress and pork. It involves funds from the Malampaya project which along with the proceeds of the PCSO and PAGCOR Prof Benjamin Diokno describes as “shadowy funds” that are not subject to the usual process of budget scrutiny and deliberations by Congress. For as long as they are hidden, Diokno believes they will always be prone to corruption and a source of patronage and rent-seeking.

Here is how Prof Winnie Monsod weighs the pros and the cons behind the issue of pork:

In sum, what are the benefits of the pork barrel system in the Philippines? One, it gives the executive branch tremendous leverage over the legislature, which is supposed to provide checks and balances (the executive branch can withhold the pork). Two, it gives incumbent legislators an unfair advantage over their electoral opponents, because of the projects (if successfully implemented) they bring, or the money (if pocketed) they can use to buy votes. And what are the costs? At least P21 billion a year of taxpayers’ money that arguably could have been more efficiently and equitably used for the welfare of the Filipino people.

The problem with the abolishing pork is that you need the endorsement of the very people who benefit from it to succeed. This is exactly the same impediment to getting Congress to abolish political dynasties. Pork may be seen as the vehicle for the network of patronage emanating from the Palace to Congress to the people. In the past it has been indispensable in getting significant bills involving painful economic reform to pass. Some say even the impeachment of the Chief Justice would not have taken place without it.

Pork is then used to help solons get re-elected either through the projects they fund or through amassing some form of rents that then get used for their campaign. What’s more, this tacit arrangement seems to exist with the grudging consent of the public who don’t believe that public servants can afford to live on their salaries and run for office based on them alone. There is therefore a trade-off or deal with the devil being made here. Economic reforms are not costless to produce–they require some form of corruption in a developing economy.

The problem with that is it perpetuates a system of patrimonialism which many say lies at the heart of our problem of underdevelopment, i.e. we would not have to resort to this form of “transactions costs” if we had a strong party system in which policies mattered, where elected members toed the line or faced the consequences from their own caucus.

The problem with our system is that political dynasties control the parties, or stated in another way, parties are merely a front for the family franchise, and they are financed largely through a system of patronage that emanates from the presidency, who requires their support to push his agenda through. It is a co-dependent arrangement of patronage and rent-seeking that perpetuates itself.

How then do we untangle this web? Do we simply abolish pork? That presents a number of challenges as well. How will Malacañang push its legislative agenda? What forms of illegal activities would congressmen resort to to raise campaign funds?  But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. How would we get congressmen and senators to act against their own self-interest in the first place?

The answer lies in campaign finance reform: by using the PDAF to finance political parties. The amount involved, Php21 billion a year or Php63 billion per term, is a lot of money. With that kind of money parties could become professionally run organisations that would endorse candidates and provide seed money for their campaign. This system would still favour incumbents who presumably would still be high ranking members of their parties. It would still be subject to the audit and accountability rules of the Comelec and the Commission on Audit, since they are public funds.

The good thing about giving money to the political parties not the elected politician to disburse is that it gives their executive committees greater power to influence and discipline their members who will be relying on their endorsement to seek re-election. It will still be rife with influence peddling, factionalism and perhaps patronage, but that is the nature of politics. Some parties will do a better job of managing their affairs and that will be their selling point to the electorate.

The downside of this proposal is that rather than the money or at least a good proportion of it going to fund development projects that benefit constituents, all of it would now go to the political parties. Of course the way in which parties use these funds would be up to them. They could presumably still engage in development projects, but that would be a matter for them to decide. They may decide to keep all of it to manage their affairs and fund election campaigns of their members.

My answer to that objection would be to say that although shifting pork to parties does come with a cost to the constituent community, it does bring some benefits as well in the form of better policies and programs, with less padding for corruption, as parties are strengthened and get weaned off the system of patronage and rent-seeking. This would not happen if we simply abolished pork. These benefits would accrue to society and presumably outweigh the costs.

Some might say this is too risky. Even if we give money to parties, they will still be run by politicians, and every time you hand money to a politician you are courting disaster. Well, perhaps it does involve some risk, but it is a risk we should be prepared to take if we are to develop a different set of political institutions in our country, one that provides incentives to stronger parties, rather than the current arrangement which degrades them.

The next step after that would be to allow equal access to non-dynastic members of the party through legislation that would allow campaign funds to be disbursed by the state to political parties subject to their meeting certain requirements that allow greater access and participation to party members that do not belong to any established political family. That will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Schedule of 2011 PDAF releases to Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco

Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco, acting as a defense witness at the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, claimed yesterday that the release of the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF)—more commonly referred to as “pork barrel funds”—allocated for his district was delayed as a result of his opposition to the impeachment of former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. He testified that he received the first tranche of the PDAF on August 1, 2011.

Navotas (Lone District) Rep. Toby Tiangco
Courtesy of the Toby Tiangco page on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Toby-Tiangco/185633641527060)

In the interest of discussion, we are publishing the schedule of the pork releases in 2011 to Rep. Tiangco as recorded in the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) web site.

2011 PDAF – Tiangco, Tobias Reynald M.

A Quarter of the Way

image courtesy of 123rf.com

That is how much of P-Noy’s term of office would have expired by the end of next month. It usually marks the end of the window of opportunity for introducing major reforms. In the case of the US presidency, the current occupant of the White House President Obama was able to introduce his stimulus program, banking reform and of course, the once in a lifetime reform of the healthcare system within his first eighteen months in office.

At the end of that period, the tea party movement rebelled against the direction he was taking the nation and voted the Democrats out of their majority in the lower house of congress. The new Republican-led house’s intransigence over the deficit has blocked any further reforms (witness the failure of the super committee over the weekend), and it will probably take another election to allow the grid-lock to be broken.

As we approach the quarter mark of P-Noy’s presidency, it is worth reflecting on his accomplishments or lack thereof and the conditions under which he has had to govern that may or may not have enabled him to achieve what he promised during his campaign. More than anything, I believe that these first eighteen months have highlighted the inconsistencies in his promises and the inevitable tensions that come about from pursuing them.

Firstly, let me tackle his social contract and the plugging of the fiscal deficit. Due to his pledge of no new taxes, the finance and budget departments have had to rely on better tax compliance and program savings in order to bridge the government’s fiscal gap while attending to social and economic infrastructure programs. This is in a country of very wealthy elites who are averse to paying their fair share of taxes.

Despite my distaste for the government’s attempts at “fiscal consolidation” a euphemism for austerity measures I dubbed the “surplus fetish”, one benefit that I now see with the way in which they have gone about things is that it has exposed the inability of tax agencies even under the best efforts of honest officials to raise enough revenue to meet the government’s social compact obligations.

This is why Secretary Purisima, in a bid to shore up enough revenues down the track has flagged a few revenue measures to congress including the rationalization of fiscal incentives, the indexation of sin taxes, and as recently as this week the raising of a minerals tax similar in vein to the Australian resource rent scheme. These three taken alongside the stricter enforcement of the tax code on self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals could yield an estimated four hundred billion pesos, enough to close the fiscal gap and then some.

Enacting these revenue measures would lift the tax collection effort to a more sustainable nineteen percent of GDP, a position last held in the late-90s when the country eked out a surplus. The reform of the tax and incentives system would allow a more progressive and equitable fiscal expenditure program. One reason why the growth of the last decade was not felt by the broad masses of people was that the growth went largely to big business in the form of profits. Benefits through the tax system could not be shared with the less fortunate as the tax collection rate continued to decline despite the growth.

The absence of a successful asset reform program to tackle landlessness in the rural sector led to continued urban migration and growth of informal labor markets. This normally would lead to greater social insurance spending by the state, but this has only been recently addressed with the conditional cash trasnfers program. By next year, the government believes it will cover two of the four million poorest households. The funding comes from the scaling down of the grains importation program, a low lying fruit. To cover the remainder would require doubling the current thirty billion pesos spent on the program. This can only be accomodated through new taxes.

Secondly, given the new-found consensus around new revenue measures, getting them adopted will entail the exertion of executive will and the full cooperation from the congressional leadership. The legislative record of the government has been rather dismal with only 3.25 of its thirty three priority measures passed this year.

These include the reform of government-owned and controlled corporations, changes to labor regulations covering night shifts for women and the synchronization of the elections in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao with the rest of the country. The passage of an ammendment to the Electric Power Industry Reform Act that contained one fourth of the recommended changes of the administration accounts for a quarter-measure (hence 3.25 out of 33 measures).

At this rate, it will take a little over ten years to get all of the priority bills passed, including the reproductive health bill which has been seized on by the local Occupy movement. The actual tally of bills passed was seven, three of them not flagged as urgent including one that granted Philippine citizenship to a certain Marcus Eugene Douthit. The country spends about a hundred and ten billion pesos a year for both houses of congress. This is about sixteen billion pesos per measure, which represents very low value for money.

Contrast that with the performance of the Gillard government in Australia which passed two hundred and fifty measures this year including a highly contentious carbon tax and emissions trading scheme. This is quite impressive considering that it has had to seek an alliance with the Greens and a few independents to see these bills through both the lower and upper house.

In the Philippines, the majority in the lower chamber is always loyal to the president, which makes the Senate the only real check on executive power. But the senators unlike in the past are not particularly hostile to P-Noy, which represents a window of opportunity. Unfortunately, much of the upper chamber’s attention has been devoted to controversies involving the former regime which is perhaps why it has had little time to devote to other matters.

Thirdly, the pursuit of the rule of law and anti-corruption under the rubric of Daang Matuwid (Righteous Path) and the prosecution of the former president have come into conflict with each other. It is clear that P-Noy does not want a repeat of the ongoing saga with the Marcoses. This is perhaps the reason why he sought to bring Mrs Arroyo to justice by sending her to jail before Christmas this year.

The lady he has put to the task, his justice secretary, might have skirted a few legal formalities in order to make that happen. This is the conclusion arrived at by a few dispassionate observers including legal luminary Fr Joaquin Bernas, SJ, dean emeritus of the Ateneo Law School from where a number of the president’s men have been trained.

During the campaign, it seemed that the rule of law was intertwined with bringing Mrs Arroyo to justice for misdeeds done while in office. Now, given the situation where the high court is stacked with her appointees, certain exigencies have to be dispensed with in going after her. Indeed it would be preferable from Mrs Arroyo’s point of view for these cases to be tried immediately while she still enjoys some legal cache with those on the Corona bench.

In pursuing the case against her, P-Noy runs the risk of succumbing to the “dark side” by employing extra-legal or extra-constitutional tactics as she did during her presidency. Rather than lifting the country out of the mud, what could happen is that his presidency could get dragged through it with her. The impending release of the Supreme Court’s order to distribute his family’s hacienda to its poor tenants can be seen as a form of retribution. It distorts the narrative of “light vs darkness” by laying the blame for social inequity and injustice squarely on the president.

At any rate, what economists and foreign investors mean when they refer to the rule of law has nothing to do with prosecuting former incumbents but with the securing of ownership and property rights and the efficient enforcement of contracts. And here once again, the pursuit of daang matuwid has led to the scrapping of a few contracts involving foreign donors and their suppliers for the simple reason that they were signed by the former president. This has if anything maintained the image of the Philippines as a country with a high sovereign risk attached to it.

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on how the shadow and specter of Mrs Arroyo’s administration has haunted her successor. In the first instance, an absence of public trust in government has cemented the idea in P-Noy’s head that he could only fund his social contract by improving tax collection rather than new taxes. This has been shown to be a false economy of sorts. Secondly, investigations into anomalies committed by her have distracted congress from pursuing his legislative agenda. Thirdly, prosecuting her at all costs has compromised his pursuit of the rule of law, property rights and good governance.

At some point, P-Noy will have to pivot from correcting the errors of the past to ensuring a brighter future for all. To do that, he will have to wrestle with the internal inconsistencies of his reform agenda and exert executive will to get his measures passed as well as restraint when required to show an even hand in prosecuting Mrs Arroyo.

In the end, he would want to avoid a problem known to economists as the winner’s curse. This situation could arise if he becomes overly-invested in the hunt for personal vindication against Mrs Arroyo and her minions. In seeking to settle a few scores with her, he might eventually get side-tracked into a very personal and passionate fight. This could detract him from pursuing a much broader reform agenda for the country. In this manner, he could easily squander the remaining time he has in office and wind up with very little to show for it.

A Clear but Erroneous Message

In his second state of the nation address, President Aquino traded his old nuanced style in favor of a crisper, cleaner form of delivery, but was it accurate?

It was a speech aimed at the public rather than the pundits. In the past, when seeking to convey his mastery of a subject, Pres Aquino or PNoy would often get lost in the detail of the topic at hand. Whether it was in dealing with the security issues after the January bomb blast or whether it had to do with the specifics of his budget.

Not this time. It was not that his speech was short on specifics. In his nearly hour-long address, the president covered everything from our recent credit upgrades to the US State Department’s downgrading of us in their watchlist of countries involved in human-trafficking, from light monorail to mosquito larvae and coconut coils.

What distinguishes this speech from previous ones is the unifying theme that threaded the whole piece, which was the narrative concerning his crusade against corruption. The appropriately coined term “wang-wang mentality” (so called for the unauthorized use of wang-wangs or sirens symbolic of the sense of entitlement by the powerful enclaves of society) was used as a rhetorical device to sharpen the focus of his theme.

The president spoke of progress in this effort yielding tangible benefits to our economy. He noted the rise of stock prices, the reduction of our rice imports, the decline of poverty and the growth of employment. He attributed these developments to the changes he has made in the running of state agencies from the highy impervious public works department to the grandiosely caffeinated Philippine gaming corporation where he claimed wasteful spending was brought to heel.

Inconvenient Truths

Some analysts have pointed out that the improvement of rice production that led to a lower demand for imports came more as a result of better weather conditions than anything else, and that the reduction of poverty in April came after a jump in January. To this I might add, that the growth in employment is simply unremarkable given the past ten years, and that even with a slight decline in unemployment, the twin problems of high underemployment and low productivity (a result of lesser jobs being created in manufacturing) still prevails.

These of course are the nuances that I said were left out of the equation. These facts were conveniently swept away because they did not fit into the overarching narrative arc of the president’s speech, nor did it fit in with the upbeat “vibe” that he was trying to project.

If we look at the substance and purpose of the speech, which is supposedly the setting of the president’s legislative priorities, we find that in a speech of 5,989 words, the president devoted 116 of them to his proposed measures. That is about 1.9% of the text. He went through his proposals so quickly, that he even failed to give a proper justification for them or a rationale for how these priorities fit within his broad agenda.

No apologies

In a manner of speaking, this was a “no apologies” speech. The president did not report on the state of his much vaunted PPPs or public private partnerships which was the centerpiece of his first SONA, nor did he ask Congress to pursue legislation that would improve its implementation.

After pointing out that

(a)ccording to the BIR, we have around 1.7 million self-employed and professional taxpayers: lawyers, doctors, businessmen who paid a total of 9.8 billion pesos in 2010. This means that each of them paid only an average of 5,783 pesos in income tax—and if this is true, then they each must have earned only 8,500 pesos a month, which is below the minimum wage. I find this hard to believe

he then failed to announce any reforms that would ensure a greater contribution of these privileged few to the national treasury in keeping with his no new taxes pledge which the Movement for Good Governance scored him poorly for.

The president also made no apologies for the slowdown of the economy in the first quarter of the year. Instead, he stuck to his narrative contrasting his righteous way with that of his predecessor. Buoyed by the recent string of whistle-blowers and his new-found ally in the newly designated Ombudsman, he did not hesitate to talk down the opposition or to entreat everyone to praise the “good deeds” of his government.

The president adeptly avoided confrontation with two important but some would say wayward institutions. Having bruised the egos of church leaders in the RH debate as well as the PCSO “cars for clergy” scandal, he diplomatically offered an olive branch to the Catholic bishops who were in the audience. He also made sure to gain the support of the military and the police through his procurement of defense assets and provision of low-cost housing.

He clearly did not want to get side-tracked from his simple narrative that his anti-corruption drive would bring about national development. He even found a way to weave the protection of our sovereignty to his good government agenda.

The need for nuance

The sharpening of the edges around this vision of a nation free of the wang-wang mentality and the personalization of this vision as pronounced by PNoy himself was crafted to appeal to the broader sections of his audience. The president was railing against the very government he led. He spoke as an outsider, as an insurgent much like the late former US president Ronald Reagan who saw it as his task to fight the menace of “big government” or more contemporaneously of British PM David Cameron who seeks to displace it with a “big society”.

If you agree with his thesis that corruption prevents growth, then there will be much in the SONA to cheer about. If on the other hand, you consider the empirical as well as historic evidence that corruption per se is not the culprit, but rather the lack of a coherent bureaucracy around a national development project, then you will recognize the effectiveness of myth-making in public speeches.

Indeed if you believe the former, then everything is fine and dandy. But if you believe the latter, then the lack of substance or clarity on how the government intends to reverse the dangerous trend in our employment mix through some kind of industry or tax policy with the stalling of the government’s major investment strategy means that when the favorable conditions turn sour, as they most certainly will, we are in for a rude awakening somewhere down the track.

One of the best public speakers in his day was George W Bush. He was able to rally his people behind a clean, crisp message against the “evil doers”. He left the incovenient truths and nuances of intelligence out of public debate. Ten years later, we find the repercussions both strategically and economically of this form of “messaging” that have mired his country in a highly polarized debate over the national debt.

The need to speak clearly is one thing, but the need to speak more factually is another. Hopefully in the future, the president’s communications and strategy team will be able to craft a message that marries the two.

Pacquiao: Putting the 'twit' in Twitter?

The nominally honorable Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao, officially elected Representative of the sole district of Sarangani, was conspicuously absent from the House proceedings on the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who has been charged with betrayal of public trust. (The House, as reported elsewhere on this site, eventually voted in favor of impeachment by an overwhelming majority.) The world-renowned boxer, however, was apparently monitoring the action on television, as he announced via his official Twitter account (@CongMP) that he was “watching the impeachment trial” and thought that it was a “very interesting topic”.

'Twitter _ Emmanuel D_ Pacquiao_ I'm watching impeachment t ___' - twitter_com_CongMP_status_49851426041626624

When he was asked by a couple of citizens to explain why he was not at the session, Pacquiao resorted to what might be magnanimously referred to as attempts at wit.

'Twitter _ Emmanuel D_ Pacquiao_ @RAndRat e di mag reklamo ___' - twitter_com_CongMP_status_49857233164574720
'Twitter _ Emmanuel D_ Pacquiao_ @momblogger e di mag rekla ___' - twitter_com_CongMP_status_49856708150968320

Pacquiao later took a stand on the impeachment issue, declaring, “I vote NO! and I can give my explanation thanks“.

'Twitter _ Emmanuel D_ Pacquiao_ I vote NO! and I can give ___' - twitter_com_CongMP_status_49864893465243648

In all likelihood surprised by the flood of criticism he received for his unbecoming online behavior, Pacquiao then bid Twitter good-bye, an act that, according to Cocoy, only befits a wuss. (The account is still active as of this writing, and the post pictured below has been removed.)

'Twitter _ Emmanuel D_ Pacquiao_ Sorry everyone but hanggan ___' - twitter_com_CongMP_status_49869490770558977

Precisely why he had refused to perform his sworn duty of representing his constituents and giving them a say on an issue of national importance is unclear—not to mention moot and academic. It may well be that he was training in Baguio, but Baguio is merely six to eight hours away from Metro Manila by land. What is certain is this: Pacquiao’s absence from the impeachment proceedings is utterly irresponsible, a fact that his inappropriately flippant—even scornful—tweets serve only to underscore, and which does not augur well for the rest of his political career. If the pugilist conceives of Twitter as an informal forum intended for casual banter, then, at the very least, he should consider restricting his updates to inconsequential banalities, instead of setting the stage for being remembered as a laughingstock of a solon.

Meanwhile, Pacquiao ought to be condemned not only by the people of Sarangani or civil society as a whole, but also by his colleagues, for surely his disdainful disregard of parliamentary procedure, to the point of voting via a micro-blogging service, besmirches the House of Representatives as well.

Representative Ronald Singson has Resigned

Former House Representative Ronald Singson, who was recently convicted by a Hong Kong court in possession of illegal drugs has resigned. His letter of resignation was received by the House of Representatives.

Image of his resignation letter:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/briankingong/status/42501769183498240″]

Singson resigned as fulfillment to a promise to his father.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/ANCALERTS/status/42502218179543040″]

The congressmen who go to the Pacquiao fights are not the kind you want getting involved in the country’s business anyway. Better that they stay out of town. Hopefully more frequently and for longer periods.

Travel allowances on top of their salary and official pork is small change compared to the damage those people can do if they are allowed to go about their business.

I belong to the school that believes the only time one can sleep soundly is when thieves are on  vacation.