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Discretion

It’s understandable that former chief justice Renato Corona crashed the “Million People March” the other day in Rizal Park.

Corona probably believes, not without basis, that the pork barrel — the legislature’s or Malacañang’s, or both — was instrumental in his unprecedented impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Before the impeachment complaint could be TRO’d by the Corona Supreme Court, there was reportedly a frenzied scramble among congressmen to sign the document for transmission ASAP to the Senate.

The complaint, as the public learned at the impeachment trial, was haphazardly put together. Corona, fortunately for his enemies, signed his own death warrant when he testified and put his foot in his mouth.

Corona was booed out of the Rizal Park rally by irate protesters who did not want to see their cause hijacked.

His ouster as chief justice, however, illustrates what the executive can do to influence congressional work through the use of funds covered by rules that are opaque and allow a wide room for discretion.

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I suspect the same principle was at work in the unprecedented impeachment by the House of Merceditas Gutierrez. Unlike Corona, she opted to go out without a fight, quitting as ombudsman and slipping quietly into peaceful retirement.

When the president is a decent public servant and lawmakers are the usual swine, it’s good to have the executive actually controlling the purse strings in government, to push reforms or speed up urgent legislation.

But when Malacañang is occupied by a crook and the nation’s best hope for his constitutional ouster is the usual drove of swine in Congress, it’s not good to have the president holding lawmakers by their nuts through the power of the purse. Any impeachment complaint can then be blocked before it can even get off the ground.

These days, with the furor over the pork barrel, wide discretionary powers in the allocation and disbursement of funds under the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA) are being transferred from Congress to the executive.

Those powers are on top of a scheme practiced during the previous administration, which I’m not sure has been banned under the present one, in which Malacañang can stop fund releases for certain projects and appropriate the funds as “savings” for its discretionary use.

Do we want this setup, especially after June 30, 2016? We should be careful what we wish for.

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There were a lot of confusing demands at the Rizal Park “picnic” the other day. Some members of the clergy, for example, called for a “leadership change,” with no names proposed as replacement. The princes of the Church should also be careful what they wish for. A bishop, even if on leave, can’t be installed as president. Do they want any of the officials in the constitutional line of succession? The top three have their own pork barrels. The Supreme Court is as opaque as Congress in its fund utilization and the asset declarations of its members.

After that muscle flexing against “pork” — not quite a million but impressive enough in a nation thought to be suffering from people power fatigue — the focus should be on making all aspects of budgeting, fund disbursements, government procurement and project implementation as transparent as possible.

Accountability must be clearly delineated at every step, from the project or fund release proposal to the bidding and implementation.

Every detail must be posted on a government website that can be easily accessed by the public. This need not wait for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

If the information is out there, it could be scrutinized by number crunchers. The intricacies of budgeting can give someone who nearly flunked Math 11 (like me) a monumental headache. An expert from a global financing institution had to patiently explain to me how that “savings” hocus-pocus worked.

It’s good that budget officials will reportedly meet with some of the anti-pork rallyists, to explain exactly what P-Noy intends to do within the constraints of the law.

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Unless the precious Constitution is amended, we’re stuck with the provision that states: “All appropriations, revenue or tariff bills, bills authorizing increase of the public debt, bills of local application, and private bills shall originate exclusively in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur with the amendments.”

Whether we like it or not, it’s the House — yes, those pork-hungry congressmen, with the concurrence of senators — that must approve the GAA. They can’t be kept out of the budget process. Already, some senators are insisting that they have the final say on the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF.

With every corruption scandal involving lawmakers, there are proposals to just drop a bomb on the two legislative chambers to obliterate everyone. For the chronic absentees, more bombs can be dropped on certain exclusive gated villages.

Over the years several prominent foreigners (who don’t want to be named) have actually sympathized with this drastic suggestion, pointing out that unlike in their countries, we haven’t had an internal revolution (not against foreign colonizers) so bloody the nation sees the folly of vile ways and unites behind lasting reforms for the common good.

But all those extrajudicial killings and deadly election violence notwithstanding, we’re a generally peaceful people. We still prefer talking to fighting.

What Malacañang can do is improve its messaging on the complicated budget process. Because not many people fully understand the process, lawmakers — advised by topnotch accountants — find it easy to juggle public funds.

The comprehension problem partly underpins the failure of some pork critics to appreciate the significance of the reforms announced by P-Noy in the budget process, within the bounds of the Constitution. Sometimes it seems like Malacañang is talking to a wall.

In this problem, public skepticism also plays a part. The sooner the systemic reforms announced by P-Noy are implemented, the better for his credibility.

With transparency rules in place – which should cover all officials’ discretionary funds, including P-Noy’s – budgeting experts should be able to keep track of the utilization of people’s money.

For P-Noy, the most urgent need at this point is to regain eroded public trust in his avowed daang matuwid. That trust is indispensable if he wants to continue freely exercising his discretion over public funds.

 

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