The Long View: Getting taken for a ride


Getting taken for a ride

 / 04:30 AM January 31, 2024

Poised to sign the 2024 national budget, President Marcos intoned that “this budget is more than a spreadsheet of amounts … Rather, it details our battle plan … It funds the elimination of the problems [our country] must overcome … its fine print bankrolls the realization of our dreams writ large.” The usual suspects—representatives and senators alike—smiled and clapped, but it seems the House is poised to have the last laugh as its dreams are finally fulfilled.

The 2024 General Appropriations Act (GAA) contained, within its “spreadsheet of amounts,” two provisions tailor-fit to achieve the unicameral, parliamentary dreams of the House and its leadership. A seasoned budget watcher laid them out for me in this manner. First, “With a promise of a substantial share in the unprecedented P500 billion social amelioration fund or ‘ayuda’ in the 2024 GAA for each district, the legislators have worked hard and fast to collect the minimum 3 percent signatures/district and 12 percent nationally.” In layperson’s terms, having refined the giving of “ayuda” to the electorate during the pandemic, no one batted an eyelash over half a trillion pesos being earmarked for that purpose: undebatable, untraceable, near-instant (once authorized for release by the President). It’s P500 billion’s worth of carrots to inspire signing on to a people’s initiative.

Second, “The funding for the plebiscite has already been secured when P12 billion was added during the budget bicameral committee meeting to the P2.2 billion the Commission on Elections (Comelec) requested for plebiscites. Apparently, the senators were not aware of this.” Again, in layperson’s language: if the incentive (ayuda which loyal legislators can partake of, to gift to their constituents, so long as the President approves) was built-in to the budget, so was the means to deprive the Senate of its own built-in leverage in any squabble with the Senate. By hiding a budget for a constitutional plebiscite in the budget, once a people’s initiative is approved, it can automatically be scheduled for a plebiscite, because the money, by means of an item inserted in the bicameral conference committee, is there.

The starting gun and the finish line tape, then, were already in place before the Senate even got around to realizing it was being taken for a ride. It has engaged in a collective protest and insisted on getting off the Charter change train after it thought it had cleverly called the House of Representatives’ bluff, by saying it was prepared to deliberate on amending the Constitution so long as each chamber voted separately in a constituent assembly that wouldn’t consider amending political provisions. By that time, however, as more than one crowing congressman had declared, the signatures had already been gathered and were soon going to be shown to the Comelec.

In contrast to past Charter change efforts back in the old days when even politicians thought that media, civil society, and the clergy conferred legitimacy, this time around things were done with foresight, discipline, and resolve. The Senate, which even its defenders have to admit, is a living demonstration of how celebrity and money trump competence, couldn’t even detect that the game it was playing was being rigged under its own nose.

To be sure, there can still be a showdown before the Supreme Court, and the window for accomplishing amendments is only open until July of this year. After that, if an amendment isn’t approved, the political class as a whole will have to prepare for the midterms based on the current rules, which effectively means the Charter will survive intact until 2028. Senators, the clergy, civil society, and the remnants of the 1983-1986 Middle Forces (plus the Dutertes!) have to get together and, more to the point, convince a majority of justices to retain the status quo: something easy enough to do, if and only if, enough of them are either statesmanlike or selfish enough (either attitude works) to thwart an amendment.

But we are living in the eighth year of an era premised on the repudiation of not just the Aquinos but people power and the institutions it created. One person complained to me that government workers were inspired to attend the recent “Bagong Pilipinas” rally with this love offering: 1.5 leave credits, 1 piece Chicken McDo, and a loot bag. To which I replied, see the attention to detail? No cash! In the old days, the complaint was, “outgunned, out-gooned, and out-gold.” Add to that the emerging Bagong Pilipinas mantra: “Outsmart.”

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.