Epira Law

The 800-Pound Gorilla

What are the blind-spots that the administration is ignoring?

image from be-the-bear.blogspot.com

Those who chide us for telling the President not to lose sight of the economy in the hunt for Mrs Arroyo might remember the experiment conducted by Daniel Simon and Christopher Chabris.

In this famous study looking into visual perception and selective attention, participants were told to view a short video clip depicting two groups passing balls around, one group wearing black shirts and the other wearing white. They were told to count the number of times a ball was passed between those in white. Here is the video for those unfamiliar with it.

At the end, most participants were able to provide the correct number of passes made between white shirted people. But then, when asked if they had noticed the gorilla in the room, about half said they did not. As it turns out, the act of focusing too much attention on the ball prevented many from even noticing something as glaringly out of place as a person in a gorilla suit walking right into the middle of the set and thumping his chest, even when it was staring them in the face!

To those supportive of the president’s actions against his predecessor, Mrs Gloria Arroyo, she represents the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. Any other concern such as the economy even during a deteriorating global economic crisis is a mere distraction to the task of bringing her to justice. They would rather have the president focus his energy and attention on the task of ending her ‘monkey business’ than worry about sustaining the growth of the Philippines and along with that the job security of present and future workers.

Of course in an ideal world, the president and his cabinet would be able to do more than one thing at a time, but that is not what the evidence suggests. Witness the latest downgrade by the ADB of the Philippines’ growth prospects. It demonstrates how the government has not kept its ‘eye on the ball’, so to speak by failing to prime the economy with public capital expenditures.

Ok, some would say. So, perhaps aside from keeping track of the ball, the president could also monitor the gorilla, but then as this next study shows, something else could be happening. When respondents were told about the gorilla after viewing the first clip, they were then asked to view a second one, which is shown below.

This time around, everyone noticed the movement of the gorilla, since they had by this time been primed for it. However, not everyone noticed the color of the curtain changing or that one of the players in a black shirt exited the frame. This again should be of concern to those who feel confident of the government’s cognitive abilities.

Even if say next year, P-Noy’s team were to start putting a greater emphasis on ensuring that his government did its job to prop up demand in the economy by spending its budget for public construction (a task it performed miserably this year), while prosecuting the Arroyos, what other crisis could catch it off guard? A power crisis for instance is already looming on the horizon. Presumably a temporary downturn will reduce demand for power, but decisions with regard to its future supply have to be taken years in advance. Remember how the Cory government failed to address this issue?

It was former president Fidel Ramos who likened the presidency to a juggling act which is performed by someone on a unicycle on a high tension wire several hundred feet off the ground wearing a blind-fold with one hand tied behind the back and no safety net. A simple distraction or loss of concentration could spell disaster. It appears that the president is already too emotionally involved not only with Mrs Arroyo’s case but with delegitimizing the Chief Justice as well. The rage he expressed recently could blind him and his administration from pursuing important reforms.

Already several balls seemed to have fallen to the ground (or slipped off the radar) such as the RH bill and revising the EPIRA law (only 3.25 of the 33 priority measures have been passed so far, which at that rate will take ten years for all of them to succeed), such as appointing competent ambassadors (yes, I am referring to that confirmation hearing of Domingo Lee which was lampooned here), and the like.

Personally, my take on this is that the ball represents the president’s poll numbers. His handlers are so keen on tracking them and on focusing on what would drive them up or down (prosecuting the Arroyos for instance and railing against the Chief Justice) that they have perhaps lost sight of their own short-comings and failings which they dare not speak to the president about lest he get upset with them for ‘distracting’ him.

Witness the justice department’s conduct in investigating the former president, now congresswoman Arroyo which did not square with the norms and institutions of the judicial system making it appear more like a witch hunt than a proper legal proceeding. The president’s transference of blame to the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court does not excuse the shameless way he went about seeking to detain Mrs Arroyo which was reminiscent of her own extra-constitutional and extra-legal antics. This dangerous precedent of the executive undermining the judiciary is something more hazardous to the survival of our fragile democracy than just this case alone can pose.

But the president seems dead-set on playing the biggest trump card up his sleeve, his massive popularity, in order to impose his will on the high court. These ‘animal spirits’ once unleashed could lead to disastrous consequences. The country now sits on the precipice of further decay. Waiting for just a slight nudge from the president which could plunge it into a downward spiral of political instability and risk uncertainty in the coming years which will dissipate any investor confidence that had been returning.

Many will balk at this characterization of the situation saying that what is going on is nothing out of the ordinary for the Philippines. But that is exactly my point–the country was well-poised to become a more mature, more stable democracy. Apparently not now by the looks of it. Was it too much to ask for the elite to rise above their familial squabbling? They seem so focused on who gets the ball and how it changes hands, keeping track and keeping score of each player that they ignore the wider context and how their actions affect the country’s progress. Ignoring in the process, the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

Like district congressmen, party-list reps enjoy perks

Like district congressmen, party-list reps enjoy perks
VERA Files


WHEN it comes to the perks of being a lawmaker, party-list representatives are no different from congressional district representatives.

Every month, they, too, receive a monthly salary of P35,000. Every year, each of them are also entitled to P70 million from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and at least P30 million from Public Works Fund, more popularly known as “pork-barrel funds.”

Then there are the so-called “extras”—at least for those who align themselves with the powers-that-be.

Some party-list representatives admit receiving a monthly allowance from the Office of the Speaker. They get additional “bonuses” when the passage of Malacanang-sponsored bills is being rushed. The sums range from P100,000 to P250,000 per vote, depending on the importance of the bill, according to congressional sources.

The opportunity to travel abroad for free, either by invitation of groups abroad or by hosts within the House of Representatives, is also something the party-list representatives look forward to.

Because of these privileges, many among the party-list representatives prefer to stick it out with the majority bloc. As a result, the party-list representatives are divided into three groups—pro-administration, the opposition and hard-line opposition.

Those who have chosen to stand up for their principles say they have had to pay a stiff price.

Luzviminda Ilagan of the militant group Gabriela has not received the PDAF since she assumed office in 2007.

Nonrelease of the pork barrel funds to militant congressmen began when they vigorously pushed for President Arroyo’s impeachment in 2005 following the “Hello, Garci” scandal, she said.

Like Ilagan, Gabriela’s Liza Maza, Bayan Muna’s Satur Ocampo and Teodoro Casino and Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano have not been getting their yearly pork barrel fund.

Akbayan’s Riza Hontiveros and Walden Bello have also been deprived of their PDAF allocations. Akbayan has been voting against Arroyo since the first impeachment case was filed in 2005.

“That’s obvious discrimination because every representative is entitled to that,” Ilagan said. She said they would identify projects to be funded out of the PDAF and the Pubic Works Fund as provided by law. “But nothing really comes out of it,” she said.

Ilagan said the only extra perk that hardline opposition solons like her enjoy is the yearly invitation to travel abroad with Las Pinas Rep. Cynthia Villar, president of the Lady Lawmakers’ Association in Congress. Ilagan joined Villar in her trip to Egypt last year.

Villar, wife of Sen. and Nacionalista Party standard bearer Manuel Villar, was one of the special guests at Gabriela’s anniversary celebration in October, during which she committed her office and that of her senator-husband’s full support to the group’s advocacy.

Coalescing with national and even local candidates has been part of Gabriela’s political strategy to ensure their survival during elections.

Ilagan cited Gabriela’s alliance with Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the 2007 elections. Duterte was investigated last year by the Commission on Human Rights over the rampant vigilante-style killing in his city. The investigation was requested by Karapatan, one of Gabriela’s allies.

A copy of Gabriela’s report of campaign contribution and election expenses to the Comelec for 2007 also shows the group’s receipt of P385,706.16 in campaign donation from Sen. Ma. Ana Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal, another presidential aspirant for 2010. Madrigal also released the same amount for the Kabataan party-list of Rep. Raymond Palatino’s political advertisements.

The alliance can be seen in the sample ballots distributed by the politician’s camp on election day, Ilagan said. Gabriela and other groups reciprocate the favor by campaigning for the candidate.

“We don’t have money; they are the ones who will give financial resources. In exchange, we will campaign for him. We have what we call the command votes,” the Gabriela representative said.

Ilagan maintains that their group remains solid despite their funding woes. This is not the case with other party-list groups that make up the opposition bloc in the House.

An Waray Rep. Florencio “Bem” Noel also belongs to the opposition bloc, along with Cibac Rep. Joel Villanueva, Anak Mindanao (Amin) Rep. Mujiv Hataman and Akbayan Reps. Risa Hontiveros and Walden Bello. An Waray, Amin and Akbayan all supported the three impeachment complaints against Arroyo.

But unlike Ocampo’s group that roundly criticizes the wrong moves of the administration and its allies, Villanueva and the other opposition party-list groups choose the issues to oppose the administration on.

Akbayan and the other party-list opposition groups, for example, voted for the extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Gabriela, Bayan Muna, Kabataan and Anakpwis, on the other hand, pushed for the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB).The CARP extension program bill was signed into law.

Noel said the difference between him and Villanueva and the militant solons is they do not hit Arroyo left and right and do not march in the streets to denounce her. They also seldom hold press conferences denouncing an administration program and do not have exposes all the time.

The reward: Their PDAF remains intact and is released to them regularly, albeit delayed. That is aside from the congressional insertions which, Noel said, depend heavily on the “ability” of the lawmaker to lobby.

As a result, the Cibac party-list has been able to regularly undertake programs for its constituents since the 12th Congress, ranging from infrastructure projects such as water systems, farm-to-market roads and barangay halls, to social projects such as medical, dental, optical, feeding and relief missions. The party also offers scholarships and livelihood and LGU assistance.

An Waray, for its part, allocates most of its pork barrel to government hospitals in Region 8. It prefers “soft” projects such as free hospitalization, scholarships, supply of medical needs such as thermometer and medicines to public hospitals intended for the poor.

Having access to PDAF and “being friends” with officials of various agencies also ensure Noel’s ability to maintain a four-year scholarship program in the provinces.

Rodante Marcoleta of Alagad belongs to the majority bloc but surprised everyone when he endorsed the controversial impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Oliver Lozano against the President in 2005. The case fizzled out.

Marcoleta’s return to the House of Representatives was delayed by one year. But two days after assuming office, Marcoleta joined the official delegation of President Arroyo to the U.S. during which she met with President Barack Obama. Other party-list representatives on that trip were Godofredo Arquiza (Senior Citizens), Agapito Guanlao (Butil) and Daryl Abayon (AT).

Marcoleta was also among those who wined and dined with the First Couple at the posh Le Cirque restaurant in New York City. He shunned media interviews for weeks.

The controversial solon said he does not mind being identified with the administration for as long as he could deliver the goods to his poor constituents. He proudly enumerated his achievements: giving medical and financial assistance to the poor and providing swallow wells, water and power supply in depressed communities.

There are in fact many Marcoletas among the party-list representatives today: They are with the administration as the so-called “silent majority.” They seldom participate in discussions but are expected to support the moves and programs of the administration, including controversial bills like the Epira Law, Anti-Terrorism Law and Anti-Money Laundering Act.

Marcoleta himself has stopped dreaming to see his pet bill approved into law because, he said, lawmaking “is full of compromises.”

“You need to consider many factors. You need to lobby so the committee would put it (your bill) in the agenda. You know us, Filipinos, ‘Boss, mine first,’” he said.

Lawmaking, Marcoleta said, is now only second to his obligation of helping his constituents.

(The author is a television reporter who submitted a longer version of this article as her master’s project at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Asian Center for Journalism. Her adviser was VERA Files trustee Luz Rimban.)