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Sep 15

The Explainer: Painful price of insertions

Yesterday there was a tempest in the Senate because Panfilo Lacson made a privilege speech claiming there are double entries in the national budget. As a result, senators, congressmen, and officials in the executive department have been alternating between dismissing Lacson’s expose as plain lies, or mere politicking.

Is Joker Arroyo correct when he says Lacson is making a mountain out of a molehill? At 200 million pesos and at two items Lacson claims budget for the same thing, or 400 million pesos, is this a trifling sum or have legislators lost all sense of perspective? Is there something suspicious in the budget or is this all noise without substance?

We’ll take a look at the real issues at hand, and how they connect to questions of leadership in the legislature. I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.

 

I. The perils of Senate Presidents

 

He was literally, bruised and battered, as he presided over the session in which his leadership was called to task. Yesterday, Senator Panfilo Lacson made a privilege speech, complete with PowerPoint presentation, saying not only had Congress, as a whole, padded the budget, but that specific programs were listed, and thus budgeted, twice. And he went on to suggest some legislators might be profiting from what he called Congressional insertions.

Uneasy, indeed, lays the head that wears the crown. This Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon, circa 1922, says it all. From the very start, mutiny has always been an occupational hazard for all Senate Presidents. Even as they try to steer a steady course for the chamber, senate president face continous plotting from ambitious or merely disgruntled colleagues.

The question is, how do Senate Presidents face down such challenges?

A basic principle of leadership in legislatures is that while invidual legislators are elected for fixed terms, their leaders can be replaced at any time.

In general, in legislatures with a dominant majority and minority party, the majority in the legislature appoints its party leader head of the legislature: in a parliament that leader becomes prime minister, in republican legislatures, Speaker or Senate President.

So long as the party which the party leader heads, maintains the numbers, usually for the fixed term for which the legislators were elected, that leadership is safe.

But as Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s been experiencing, if a party  believes its electoral chances are diminishing because of the current leadership, it can abandon its leader and select a new one. This is how Gordon Brown became PM to begin with: tired and disillusioned with Tony Blair, the Labor Party junked Blair and Brown took over; facing what one government minister has suggested is the worst economic crisis in 60 years, the Labor Party is seriously considering jettisoning Brown; if the party drops him as his chief, he would then be replaced as Prime Minister.

This is a purely intra-party matter in contrast to the other way legislative leaders are replaced, through a vote of confidence. Fed up legislators can simply throw out their leaders and elect new ones from among themselves; or the leaders, to forestall a longer fight, can submit their leadership for ratification or rejection by their peers. But in any case, what is required, for a leader to rise or fall in a legislature, is an issue.

Last Sunday, in its editorial, the Philippine Daily Inquirer pointed out that in the case of Senate President Villar, there is a real issue at hand. He can choose between the traditional way, as old as the chamber he heads, for the leadership to survive a challenge: to throw down the gauntlet by means of a vote of confidence. Or, he can do what this Senate President-

Ferdinand Marcos, did. Faced with a challenge during a sine die session, during which time was symbolically suspended, Marcos prevented a motion to declare the leadership vacant by surreptitiously starting the clocks. The legal fiction of time having been broken, he briskly gaveled the session closed and preserved his senate presidency.

The Inquirer editorial suggests that the problem Senate President Villar faces is that one of his colleagues has placed at his feet, responsibility for alleged double entries in the national budget. Senate President Villar says he bears no such responsibility and his colleagues have pointed out that the entire senate approved that budget unanimously.

Indeed, some experienced legislators have gone further and argued that the whole issue is much ado about nothing. Senator Lacson says individual senators intervened to insert, as he put it, specific items in the national budget, increasing the total amount.

Senator Juan Ponce Enrile says such insertions are really part of the legislative process. They are amendments or reallocations to serve, as he put it, the public interest.

If you recall our past episodes on the national budget, it goes through three stages. The President formulates and proposes a budget. The House deliberates and files a budget law incorporating, with amendments, the President’s proposal. The Senate in turn looks at what the House has drafted and then both House and Senate consolidate their versions in the bicameral conference committee.

In general, legislators approach the budget like plastic surgeons. Nip and tuck here, cut here, add there. All to maintain a generally-pleasing budgetary shape for the electorate. Former National Treasurer Liling Briones, talking to Pia Hontiveros yesterday, pointed out that the process is generally transparent both in the executive and in the committee and plenary deliberations and hearings in both houses. Things can radically change in the bicameral conference committee.

Prior to the bicameral conference committee, let’s say what legislators do is make amendments: proposed, seconded, debated, then voted upon.

That’s why yesterday, Senator Enrile, chairman of the finance committee of the Senate, could specify that only six senators did not propose amendments or even insertions in the proposed budget: Santiago, Cayetano, Aquino, Biazon, Trillanes, and Madrigal. He says he can specify the amendments proposed by the rest of his colleagues.

But literally, in the bicameral conference committee, what takes place are insertions, none of which leave a paper trail as its deliberations are closed door meetings involving delegations from both houses.

Which also explains why legislators involved in the budgetary process can still be surprised at what the final budget contains –and why it might take time to discover these budgetary surprises.

When we return, the specific budgetary controversies.

II. Local Boondoggle

JAPANESE politicians could teach their Filipino counterparts a thing or two about the pork barrel and the delights of fiddling with budgets to fund infrastructure projects susceptible to graft. Bridges to nowhere are the favorite example of such projects, because they’re grand –they’re bridges- and useless –they lead to nowhere.

Take this image, from Jeffrey Friedl’s blog:

http://regex.info/blog/2007-03-25/403

It’s a bridge that goes straight –into a mountain. On the other side of the mountain, there’s another bridge. But no tunnel connecting the two.

And it’s not just the Japanese who build bridges to nowhere.

The Republican candidate for Vice-President, Sarah Palin, gained fame opposing a bloated pork barrel infrastructure project. The bridge, from the City of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, obtained 223 million dollars in funding and Palin says she opposed it as wasteful and extravagant. Only 50 people, you see, live on Gravina island.

The problem is, it seems that she actually supported the building of the bridge, with reasoning any Filipino congressman would love.

This site- NowPublic-

http://www.nowpublic.com/world/bridge-nowhere-bridge-lies

Points to a news item that quoted Palin as saying, “”Yes. I would like to see Alaska’s infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now – while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist.”

This practice even has a word-

(Slide:)

boondoggle |?bo?n?däg?l; -?dôg?l| informal

noun

work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value : writing off the cold fusion phenomenon as a boondoggle best buried in literature.

• a public project of questionable merit that typically involves political patronage and graft:

: they each drew $600,000 in the final months of the great boondoggle.

verb [ intrans. ]

waste money or time on such projects.

ORIGIN 1930s: of unknown origin.

{end slide}

Not just time, but governance, is money.

As these venerable Free Press editorial cartoon, also from the 1920s, graphically illustrated, the allure of this-

[pot of gold]

Public office, and access to power and for the more unscrupulous, public funds…

Is the cause for this:

[race for chairmanship]

The unseemly scramble among legislators for chairmanships and other positions often described as “juicy.”

Now in the past, a fair share for all was guaranteed by party loyalty and party discipline: a team victory would be a team reward. But parties have been more fiction than fact for close to two generations now, so this, more contemporary Free Press editorial cartoon-

[de venecia]

Tells us that support for legislative leaders is often on a pay-as-you-go basis.

So Senator Lacson’s privilege speech was not only par for the course locally, but par for the course as far as legislatures are, regardless of whether they’re parliamentary or republican in nature.

In truth, Lacson’s allegations, shorn of rhetoric, are few and simple.

The headline hogging allegation’s this. These, by the way, are taken from the PowerPoint presentation he used in the Senate.

He points to this item in the national budget:

[Slide 5]

See what it says? Basically, according to subsequent discussions in the Senate, apparently this is budgetese for a flyover.

The problem, Lacson said, is this:

[Slide 6]

See what it says? Also for 200 million. Now Lacson says this is a double entry –the same project, but listed twice, under slightly different names.

Because, C-5 and Carlos P. Garcia Avenue are one and the same thing.

But Lacson’s critics say it’s two separate flyovers, but Lacson replied by saying his critics contradicted themselves and more relevant is that elsewhere in the budget, the provisions for infrastructure projects are pretty specific:

[slide 18]

The examples Lacson gave shows that for these projects, allocations are broken down in chunks: so if the budget did envision two flyovers for C-5, it could have been specific about it.

As for the other issues at hand, here they are, again taken from the same presentation:

[slide 14]

Shows the individual so-called “insertions” made by senators, according to Lacson. This includes what Lacson suspects could be another double entry, for the Aguinaldo Bridge in Cavite, a province where Lacson hails from and where incidentally, the Nacionalista Party considered a bailiwick of sorts.

He also says there are double allocations for the same thing, such as for personnel services in the Department of Agrarian Reform:

[slide 17]

Then there are these-

[slide 15]

What he says are lump sum insertions. And what he says was further bloating-

[slide 16]

In the bicameral conference committee.

When we return, we’re going to ask our guest to walk through these allegations. Are they something to be troubled about, or simply due to a feeble public understanding of the budgetary process?

Could it all be an honest mistake?

 

Interview

Our guest is…

My view

THERE’S a lot of heat and very little light in politics these days, because of too little information which in turn breeds mistrust. Back when we did two shows on the drafting and deliberations on the national budget, our guests and I pointed out that never before, have so many ordinary citizens been involved in the process.

There is an irony, however, in former Rep. Gilbert Remulla replying to Senator Lacson with the line invented and favored by the very administration both political figures oppose. That line is, bring it to the proper forum. The Senate is the proper venue for such things, at least for the preliminaries. Only when the time comes for charging people in court, can and should, the proper forum change.

Until then, this goes to show that if there is much to take heart from, in terms of reforms to the budget process, there remains opportunities aplenty for confusion, misunderstanding, and quite possible, monkey business.

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