December 26, 2013

2013: Unmasking BS Aquino

Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III (BS Aquino for short), the non-performing Congressman representing the Cojuangco-Aquino clan’s fiefdom in the second district of Tarlac, parlayed a senatorial seat then the presidency of the Philippines by riding the crest of the anti-Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sentiment and donning the Aquino mystique derived from his iconic parents.  He further used these to sustain, for the first half of his six-year term, his Teflon persona, seemingly impervious to any scandal or criticism.

Mr. Aquino thereby had an underlying advantage over his opponents.  The country’s wealthy and powerful elite and their patron and master, the US of A, came to the conclusion that he was the man suited for the job.  BS Aquino would be the fresh face to better deceive and suppress a people straining under the yoke of an oppressive and decrepit social order falsely peddled as “free” and “democratic”.

But as the history of all post-independence political regimes that preceded Aquino’s shows, popularity is ephemeral.   It inevitably and quickly evaporates as the contradictions in Philippine society incessantly clash.  The stage is thus set for the unmasking and isolation, and even ouster through a people’s uprising, of a ruling regime. 

It will be no different for BS Aquino.   2013 marks the peeling off of the Teflon image of Mr. Aquino wherein grave errors, anti-people policies and shameless kowtowing to US diktat for the first three years of his term seemed to slide off his political skin, if one is to believe the popularity surveys.

His empty boast regarding clean, honest, and good governance and attempts to pass on the blame for his failings to the former Arroyo regime have become ineffectual and tiresome.  The turning point would be the pork barrel issue and then the abysmal government response to super typhoon Yolanda. 

Mr. Aquino stretched his popularity and the people's goodwill to the limit when he unabashedly tried to defend the PDAF and the pork barrel system in general in the face of popular outrage over corruption exposed in the Napoles scam.

This widening crack in Mr. Aquino’s credibility will be pushed to its logical conclusion with the further exposure of the “pork barrel king” and the fact that graft and corruption in his administration is alive and well.  In this regard, the mass campaign for a people’s initiative to abolish the pork barrel system including, and most especially, presidential pork, will be crucial.

Victims of government’s gross criminal negligence, inutility and double talk in the wake of the Yolanda calamity and their supporters must remain vigilant over the anticipated rip-off by big real estate and private construction companies together with corrupt officials overseeing rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in typhoon-ravaged provinces.  Mr. Aquino’s appointed rehabilitation czar, former Sen. Panfilo Lacson, succinctly expressed the Aquino regime’s mantra, that the private (big business) sector will lead the way in all “government” efforts.

Paradoxically,  all the crowing about how exceptionally high GDP rates, credit upgrades, robust stock markets and big foreign exchange reserves are proof that the regime’s good governance/anti-corruption platform has brought economic dividends for the country exposes the fact that only the upper crust of Philippine society and their foreign corporate partners are the ones raking it in.  Official poverty, unemployment and hunger figures remain basically unchanged despite efforts to understate the obvious.

The Aquino regime’s compliance to neoliberal economic policies and programs prescribed by imperialist arms like the WTO-IMF-World Bank combine translate to making life more miserable and more tenuous for the majority of the Filipino people.  One need only look at the extremely vulnerable situation of the teeming masses of poor families forced to eke out a precarious living in flood-prone coastal and riverine areas, logged-over mountainsides and artificial hills of garbage dumps and make their homes in congested, squalid, disease-infested, firetrap slum communities.

Attempts by the “yellow” mainstream and social media to paper over the cacique character of the Aquino regime is continuously being belied by the fact that land reform under the bogus land reform program inaugurated under Cory Aquino’s watch, is once again being utilized by the Cojuangco-Aquino landlord clan to circumvent, frustrate and even profit from the 2012 Supreme Court ruling scuttling the stock distribution option and ordering that agricultural lands be distributed to the farm worker beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita. 

Generations of peasant families have expended blood, sweat and tears demanding that the land grabbed by the Cojuangco-Aquinos be returned to them. Their struggle is far from over. BS Aquino has seen to that.

In terms of foreign policy, the Aquino regime’s puppetry to the US is being covered up by its use of China’s expansionist ambitions in East Asia to justify the stationing of ever-increasing numbers of US troops and war materiel inside Philippine territory.  The US is deviously using Aquino’s ability to pose as a nationalist vis a vis China to push an agreement on increased rotational presence, pre-stationing of troops and war materiel and access to Philippine facilities that would be the US’ biggest gain in its strategic pivot to Asia to fend off China’s challenge to its dominance in trade and investment in the Asia Pacific.

In return, the Aquino regime calculates (or more precisely, engages in wishful thinking) as did the puppet regimes before it, that the US will provide the financial, logistical and high-tech weaponry that it thinks is the only ingredient lacking in its decades-long counter-insurgency campaign against the communist-led New People’s Army.

A reinvigorated movement to defeat the impending military access agreement and to scrap the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement, Mutual Defense Treaty and all other lop-sided military agreements with the US and other countries is bound to meet the US and Aquino regime’s latest bid for US military basing in the country contrary to anti-bases provisions in the Philippine Constitution and more importantly, in opposition to national sovereignty and the long-term interests of the Filipino people.

On the human rights and peace front, the Aquino regime’s record is dismal.  Oplan Bayanihan, the regime’s sugar-coated version of the deadly counterinsurgency (COIN) program of the Arroyo regime Oplan Bantay Laya, is long on human rights and peace rhetoric but as all previous COIN programs is just as bloody and constitutes a plague on the people.  It is also doomed to fail as a dual tactic of violence and deception to pacify the countryside.  The Philippine government’s anti-peace negotiations stand must be exposed as proceeding from a militarist mindset hostile to the goal of a just and lasting peace in the country.

Expect greater resort to state terrorism and a spike in all sorts of human rights violations as the deadline nears for the projected “neutralization” of the CPP-NPA.  The human rights movement must keep up the pressure against the reign of impunity (no justice for human rights victims – journalists, social activists, human rights defenders and ordinary people smeared as “enemies of the state”) and government’s resort to a scorched-earth policy against the CPP-NPA and its mass base as its duplicitous “alternative path to peace”.

The remaining three years of the US-Aquino regime (USAR) need not be an interminable wait. The nationalist and democratic movement, by calling on the people’s creative and boundless energies, is bound to step up resistance to the regime’s anti-people policies and programs.

The movement must rise to the defense of the people; gain strength as another ruling regime weakens and falters; and announce the good news of redemption via the unfinished national democratic revolution started by Bonifacio and the Katipunan as the people increasingly unmask not just the Aquino regime but the rottenness of the entire neocolonial and semifeudal ruling order. #

Published in Business World
27-28 December 2013

December 23, 2013

"People vs pork barrel"

The  campaign to rid the country of the pork barrel system has brought  to the fore, like the proverbial worms in the woodwork, the many forms of this abomination, not just the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and its immediate predecessor, the Countryside Development Fund (CDF), collectively dubbed “Congressional pork”, but also the gargantuan “Presidential pork” that had previously gone unremarked because it is camouflaged and justified in the guise of giving the Chief Executive flexibility in dealing with unforeseeable contingencies and addressing the demands of governance.

Also exposed in the process are the clever if not devious and apparently legal but essentially anomalous, techniques and measures that both Congress and Malacanang have devised to divert humongous amounts into their pork barrels  during the budgeting and implementation process.  Some of these, have been declared unconstitutional by no less than the Supreme Court.  But many more remain in force, not to mention the resurrection and introduction of such measures and devices in “new” forms, guises and nomenclatures.

These include, on the part of the Executive, over-budgeting or padding the items in the National Expenditure Plan (NEP) to ensure “savings” that can be realigned later on to expenditures that are not included in the national budget. Then there is impoundment, that is, the President not spending money appropriated by law either through cancellation of the appropriation or deferral or suspension of the release of the appropriated funds.  Subsequently such funds, classified as “savings” are realigned for other purposes not necessarily appropriated for in the national budget.

There are the billions  of “unprogrammed” funds which are lump sums still to be raised from revenue measures or loans incurred by government and geared towards purposes that are nonspecific or overbroad, thus making the funds susceptible to irregular spending if not outright graft and corruption.

There are the lump sums traditionally considered sacrosanct such as intelligence funds purportedly to be used for national security purposes which ostensibly due to their covert nature are not subject to standard auditing.  And the calamity funds, notorious for being the milking cow of government officials using the cover of urgent rescue, relief and even rehabilitation and recovery measures as a means for playing fast and loose with billions of public funds.

There is also such a thing as “off-budgeting” or the numerous and large lump sum funds whose actual program of expenditures has been left to the sole discretion of the President such as the Malampaya Fund, the Presidential Social Fund, Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) and the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR) Trust Funds.  These do not undergo the regular national budgeting process requiring Congress deliberation and approval.

There is the rampant practice of introducing “riders” during the bicameral sessions on the bill when legislative and public scrutiny is minimal and enactment is practically a formality.

All these dubious and questionable practices happen sans careful Congressional scrutiny and diligent fiscal oversight so long as the legislators’ pork, in the form of lump sums or through congressional insertions, is assured.

The stark reality that neither Congress nor the President will ever voluntarily take steps toward the abolition of the pork barrel system has led to the idea of the people exercising their sovereign power by invoking their right to directly propose and enact laws as provided in section 32 of article VI of the 1987 Constitution.  Sovereignty resides in the people, who merely delegate to Congress the power to craft and enact laws. This is called the “people’s initiative”. 

At least 10 per cent of the total number of registered voters and at least 3 per cent of every legislative district must sign a petition for the purpose and register the same with the Commission on Elections. Thereafter, a referendum is held where the proposed bill is put to a vote.  Once a majority of votes is cast in its favor, the bill immediately comes into effect with no need of Presidential approval nor is it subject to his veto.

A team of lawyers working under the auspices of the anti-pork alliance, the #abolishporkmovement, has come up with such a proposed bill.  It has recently been made public with the caveat that it is a work in progress and subject to the inputs, changes and other feedback from all concerned sectors and individuals.  Its tentative title is “An Act Abolishing the Pork Barrel System, Reforming the Budgetary Process and Implementation, Prohibiting Certain Acts, and Providing Penalties Therefor”.

The pork barrel is defined as “a public fund, usually in the form of a lump sum, the discretion over which is given by law, regulation or practice to the President or any public officer in the executive branch (Presidential or executive pork) or to a legislator or group of legislators (legislative pork).  The exercise of discretion by public officers or legislators relates to the use, allocation or release of pork barrel funds, the identification or selection of projects or beneficiaries, or any or all of these.”

The proposed law declares: “The State affirms the need to establish a system of strict accountability over the use of public funds to ensure that they are spent solely for functions, programs, projects and activities that redound to the interest of the people, especially the poor and marginalized sectors of Philippine society.” In this regard, the rules and practices of the pork barrel system are eliminated, “the mechanisms of checks and balances are strengthened, and that constitutional safeguards related to budgeting, appropriation and use of public funds are followed.”

The policies of one fund and line-item budgeting are to be instituted so that off-budgeting and lump sums, as a general rule, are disallowed and thus become a thing of the past.

To quote the proposed law:  “To ensure that no money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of a valid appropriation made by law, the State shall establish safeguards to eliminate the practice of maintaining accounts outside those duly appropriated by law…” Thus the Malampaya Fund and other off-budget accounts will thereafter be included in the National Expenditure Program submitted by the Executive to Congress for approval.  Likewise, the proposed law abolishes the Presidential Social Fund as a special fund left to the sole discretion of the President.

Moreover,  “(r)ecognizing that lump sum and discretionary funds in the government budget are prone to abuse and have facilitated the plunder of the national coffers by corrupt and unscrupulous public officers with the participation of private individuals, the State hereby adopts a policy of itemized or line-items only appropriations except in limited cases provided by law.”

Legislators are prohibited from intervening in budget implementation in any manner from project identification to exercising any authority in the release or realignment of funds post-enactment.  They are further prohibited from inserting new budget items during the Budget Bicameral Committee proceedings without allowing both Houses of Congress to deliberate and vote on such amendments.

For his part, the President is prohibited from impounding any portion of the national budget unless circumstances warrant and only upon approval by Congress.  It becomes mandatory that all unspent, unobligated and unreleased funds by the end of the fiscal year should be kept in the General Fund and not be spent except by means of a subsequent appropriation law.  The practice of mislabeling, misusing and abusing “savings” will be put to an end.

Prohibited acts have corresponding penalties ranging from one year to twenty years and perpetual disqualification from public office.  And despite the absence of a Freedom of Information Law, the PI bill abolishing "pork", mandates that all public transactions shall be published in the concerned agency’s websites in 15-30 days and thus made accessible to the general public.

Finally, to make sure that Congress cannot simply overturn the law with repealing legislation, this act abolishing the pork barrel system “may only be repealed, modified or amended by a law that has been approved by the people under the system of initiative and referendum established by Republic Act No. 6735.”

By clearly identifying the sources of pork and the anomalous means by which it is created, appropriated and consumed, the proposed bill has a huge potential for rallying the outraged people to take matters in their own hands and invoke their sovereign right to enact a law to abolish the pork barrel system once and for all. #

Published in Business World
13- 14 December 2013

December 12, 2013

Trojan horse

The recent Supreme Court (SC) ruling that the PDAF is unconstitutional (Alcantara vs Drilon), announced only through a press release by the Court’s spokesperson, was hailed by most of mass media as the end of the pork barrel system (PBS), a victory for the anti-pork movement, and proof that the legal justice system is alive and well, in particular that the SC can be trusted to uphold the Constitution. 

Some anti-pork groups were understandably jubilant but most received the news with guarded optimism.  Except for ruling some parts of the laws on the Malampaya Fund and the Presidential Social Fund unconstitutional, much of what is deemed as presidential pork is left untouched by the Court decision.  It did not help that the SC had uncharacteristically withheld the release of the decision’s full text until a few days after it was announced preventing closer scrutiny of its contents.

In fact the pork barrel system, and most especially presidential pork, is very much intact what with Congress, its Majority held captive by President BS Aquino and his Liberal Party, approving all proposed lump sum, discretionary funds of the Chief Executive in the 2014 General Appropriations Act. 

It is now common knowledge that presidential pork is the main source of presidential largesse generously doled out to the incumbent’s loyalists, political allies, camp followers and potential turncoats.  Thus the pork barrel for legislators can easily be resurrected later on although in more inconspicuous or unrecognizable forms. In a flurry of meetings by members of the Majority with Palace emissaries after the SC decision, the stunned and anxious legislators were reportedly reassured that they would have their “pork” and get to eat it too!

At best the SC decision can be seen as a partial victory only in the sense that the high court was forced by the anti-pork movement as well as the spontaneous and sustained outrage of the people to craft a decision which appears to abolish pork once and for all, or can be misinterpreted as doing so. Thus the SC decision is clearly double-edged, if not a Trojan horse, which can, if accepted uncritically, undermine the fight to abolish the entire pork barrel system.

The Supreme Court, after all, has not been the most consistent and thorough judicial body even as it concededly has the last word on interpreting the law. The Court has, in several controversial issues, shown that its first word is not always its last.  On the pork barrel issue, the SC has in fact flip-flopped.  Two previous unanimous decisions, one as recent as 19 months before the latest SC ruling on PDAF, upheld the constitutionality of the pork barrel in its most current incarnations.

If there is anything the Supreme Court, like its co-equal branches of government, is consistent in and clear-headed about, it is in ensuring that its decisions help strengthen and perpetuate the ruling order.   This, it seems, is what they take as their paramount obligation of “upholding and defending the Constitution”.   True enough, public sentiment, or clamor to be exact, has often been a major, if not a decisive, factor in the justices’ estimations and decisions.

We should recall where the anti-pork campaign was when news of the SC decision broke out.  While protest rallies in Metro Manila after the Million People March were much smaller, these were sustained and were much more organized, with greater attention given to bringing out information, analyses and calls to action as well as in broadening and unifying the ranks of the movement.  The anti-pork protests were also replicated in the major urban centers of the country with Cebu and Davao leading the way.

The SC petitions against the pork barrel system independently filed by other citizens’ groups, notably Mr. Samson Alcantara, president of the Social Justice Society and Greco Belgica et al, gained considerable traction with the unrelenting media coverage of the Napoles pork scam and its aftermath and the widespread public uproar generated.  Another petition led by Bayan, this time against the hitherto undisclosed Development Acceleration Program or DAP, further forced Malacanang to engage the anti-pork movement, at least in the judicial arena, and helped keep public interest and focus on the pork barrel issue, much more, on presidential pork. 

This was after President Aquino’s attempt to throw cold water on inflamed public sentiment by announcing that the PBS would soon be abolished.  In the meantime, the fugitive Janet Napoles “surrendered” to the waiting arms of Pres. Aquino and his right-hand-man DILG Sec. Mar Roxas and the Justice Department filed cases of plunder at the Ombudsman’s Office against several senators accused of involvement in the pork scam.  With government seemingly after the pork barrel crooks, Malacanang hoped that the issue would take the backseat to such attention-grabbing developments such as the siege on MNLF fighters in Zamboanga and much later, the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda.

But the pork issue has continued to roil, apparently sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness, for it to simply die down.

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s proposal and challenge for the anti-pork movement to use the mechanism of a people’s initiative (PI) to legislate the pork barrel system’s abolition has added a new and exciting element to the equation.   In fact several organizations and alliances active in the anti-pork fight have already taken up Mr. Puno’s call for a PI and have started drafting the proposed bill.  Many more organizations and individuals have welcomed this novel venue as a means to keep up the pressure on corrupt government officials, and possibly, bring about major reforms in the government budgeting and disbursement system.

With the Alcantara ruling there is the perception in some quarters that the PI for the abolition of the pork barrel system been rendered moot and academic. 

We disagree.  We view the SC ruling as essentially a gambit.  The SC is “sacrificing” the PDAF and some portions of the presidential pork, which are already politically dead in the first place, in order to preserve the pork barrel system as a whole.  This is so that the people’s money can continue to be used to grease the wheels of reactionary politics in this country including but not limited to the entire rotten system of political patronage, political dynasties, undemocratic elections and bureaucrat capitalists enriching themselves abusing all the powers and perks of public office.

A legal critique of the Alcantara decision written by a group of lawyers using the pen name “Makata” (Manananggol para sa Katarungan) provides us the basis for this view.

While it is clear from the SC ruling “that all future legislation that permit legislators, individually or collectively, to intervene, assume or participate in post-enactment stages of budget execution, or which confer personal lump-sum allocations to legislators from which they are able to fund specific projects which they themselves determine, are unconstitutional, it is a clear error of perception that no such legislation will not and cannot be enacted by Congress.”

How can this happen? The Makata group says that because all laws enjoy the presumption of constitutionality, Congress may decide to pull a fast one and still pass such a law.  Unless successfully challenged once more in the Supreme Court, such a law will remain valid and operative.

Or else, the provisions that the Court has outlawed can be smuggled in as “riders” to other bills. A rider is a provision that has little or nothing to do with a bill but because of the untransparent way that Congress conducts its business, many riders pass through the legislative mill until discovered and exposed by a vigilant citizenry.

More to the point, since Congress wields the power of the purse, it determines how much money an agency or instrumentality receives.  It is in fact a yearly ritual for legislators as individuals, as committees and as a plenary body to leverage this power in order to wring favors or concessions from executive agencies and the judiciary.  The Makata lawyers assert that the justices of the Supreme Court are not invulnerable to this power and may be persuaded in the future to reverse their decisions.

The Makata group concludes:  “If the recitation of the pork barrel’s history in Alcantara demonstrates anything, it is that the pork barrel system has a venerable history in Philippine politics and that it has proven itself to be a resilient, hardy and many-faced institution.  As such, a Supreme Court decision, much less public opinion is hardly likely to make it disappear overnight.  It is not realistic to expect Congress to purge pork from its diet, not when its members have been gorging at the trough for so long. Therefore, it is only reasonable to expect that the pork barrel will re-surface, albeit in a disguised yet more palatable form, when the timing is right.” #

Published in Business World
13-14 December 2013