THE LONG VIEW
Revolt in the making
IN NEGROS OCCIDENTAL AND PANAY, A REvolt has begun. Like all revolts, it started small, but it could end up a truly big deal. The revolt has three objectives: the scrapping of the pork barrel; the recomputation of the internal revenue allotment for provinces; and the incorporation of the pork barrel into the internal revenue allotment.
The revolt seeks to achieve success through the enactment of a law. It aims to harness public opinion, regardless of any opposition that officials may demonstrate in the coming months, even years. Like all revolts, it is centered on a threat – not to take up arms, but to use the means so recently perverted by the officials themselves: people’s initiative and referendum.
Those who support the revolt envision a law with the following provisions in broad strokes. The law would make it the policy of the State to limit the work of Congress to enacting legislation (and, I presume, to its equally essential work of oversight and investigation). It would prohibit representatives and senators from implementing and following-up projects. The law would provide for a line item budget; and it would punish local officials who violate the law.
The gentleman who told me about this brewing revolt is named Luis Mirasol Jr. I first met him last December, when I was in Bacolod City to speak on behalf of OneVoice in a forum sponsored by the archdiocese. When I met him again in Bacolod City one afternoon late last week, he said their little revolt has been making big waves in the local media, and they are trying to engage allies in their cause. His hope is that their proposal will receive national attention – and participation.
It struck me that at the heart of the proposal are certain advocacies that have gained wide currency in the ranks of our political, professional, academic and other classes. The advocacies are: more local autonomy, which requires more fiscal independence; a drastic reduction in patronage which has corrosive effects on official accountability and sound public administration; and a leveling of the playing field to enable voters to really have a choice come election time.
The day after Mr. Mirasol took the trouble to come to La Salle Bacolod (where I was giving a talk to student journalists), I ran into an old friend (but younger than me) about to run for public office for the first time. He was in the company of other young officials. They spoke of the President in glowing terms (affiliated, as they are, with the ruling coalition). I stated I didn’t share their opinion, and one replied that, well, some of them hadn’t supported her in the beginning, either, but that the President was taking good care of their province.
And a day after that, I found myself in a cable TV show sponsored by the provincial government, exchanging thoughts with my aspiring politico-friend, with me doing my best to try to agree to disagree with him politely on certain issues. After all, regardless of the politics of many provincial officials I meet, I generally agree with their desire to achieve more local autonomy. I suggested, though, that since the President herself has stated she only wishes to retire gracefully in 2010, then it seems necessary for local officials to consider what treatment they’d like from whoever ends up the next president.
If the President pleased her provincial allies from day one, by dutifully remitting their portion of the taxes, still, she hasn’t exactly been shy about reminding officials they should thank her. And she has been crafty in keeping a tight rein over members of the House. Their constant friction with governors – perennial political rivals of all congressmen for the affection of the mayors – can only be lubricated with the application of the grease from the pork barrel.
The release of funds, from Palace to governors, (provided they vote the administration’s way), and from Palace to congressmen, and even to senators, results in four things. First, it ties the hands of the members of Congress: no toeing of the party line means no signed checks. Second, it dissipates funds, spreading them between the competing agendas of congressmen and provincial governments. Third, it turns a right into a favor, a duty into a means for political extortion. Fourth, it strengthens the notion that a representative is primarily a fixer, and not a lawmaker.
So I said, watch out for this revolt brewing in your backyard: it has the potential of being a big deal. I don’t think this went over very well with some of my young friend’s political allies who were watching the show.
We need to debate questions like federalism versus devolution, and so forth, a lot more because the debate has only begun to matter to the public. What the embryonic revolt in Negros Occidental is doing, though, is show we don’t have to amend the Constitution in order to start weaning officials – and the electorate – from the teats of our national government. An official grateful to the President for giving officials most of what they’re due is an official setting himself up for the possibility of a nasty surprise after 2010. Suppose a president would be elected who would be niggardly in releasing any funds, or would reverse the current tactics and would be generous to congressmen but stingy with local officials? What could anyone do about it?
Officials would face a backlash from their constituents – or put another way, it would be more of the same: a presidency with a hold over local government and even Congress – a grip that the Constitution never intended any incumbent to have. And think of it: if Congress was made a useless place for fixers, the kind of candidates we see might just radically change.