FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 27, 2017 - 4:00pm

The national budget for 2018 is a mammoth P3.767 trillion. It passed the House of Representatives last Tuesday by a similarly impressive vote of 223 to 9.

Earlier, leaders of the House tried to show their displeasure by cutting the budgets for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) and the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC). That attempt, especially in the case of the CHR, drew strong condemnation from the public. The congressmen quietly restored the budgets they tried to cut away.

In many countries, the passage of the annual national budget is a matter closely observed by their citizens. Intense public discussion accompanies the budget process every step of the way. Debates over how taxpayer money is allocated break out not only in the legislatures but also in the public parks.

The unremitting public scrutiny that follows the budgeting process is understandable. The manner public money is allocated reflects the priorities of the government in place. The scrutiny is likewise a form of enforcing accountability on governments.

The national budget, after all, is public money. Citizens want to have a say over how the money is spent. They should.

We have never evolved a tradition of direct citizen involvement in the budgeting process. Citizens do not invest time attending the public hearings on the budget.

Often, legislators craft the budget behind closed doors and make insertions away from the public eye. As a general rule, legislators prefer to have a free hand in allocating the public funds. They see a fully transparent process as a diminution of their power.

In our peculiar political culture, legislators pose as patrons. Their power is measured by the ability to bring the bacon home to their constituencies. Until it became politically incorrect to do so, legislators put their names and pictures on public projects as if these were their gifts to citizens.

The pork barrel system, supplemented by “congressional insertions,” discouraged legislative accountability and produced the secretive process we now have. During the hearings, heads of agencies seem like they are undergoing initiation rites in any of the barbaric fraternities. They are dressed down by legislators seeking win favors from their agencies such as a new bridge here or more schoolhouses there – items that will enable the legislator to claim credit for.

Legislators unabashedly used the budget hearings to extract personal favors. When former senator Edgardo Angara was UP president, he gave up the power to issue “presidential prerogatives” which enabled him to give places in the University to students even if they failed the admissions tests. Until he gave up the prerogative, Angara was constantly pressured by legislators to admit their children and those of their prominent supporters to the UP.

Fortunately, the university had its own manner of weeding out the unfit eventually. If the beneficiaries of “presidential prerogatives” were not capable enough to hurdle the academic challenges, they simply fell by the wayside.

The self-serving budget hearings are a corruption of the process. This is the principal reason why, for decades, we neglected building the strategic infrastructure our national economy needed. Instead, the infra budget was broken up to enable all congressional districts to receive a share of some useless project.

When I served as a director of the DBP and became actively involved in designing the “nautical highway” system that would improve our logistics backbone, a group of politicians arrived at my office one day. They wanted to know what projects their provinces and districts would get from this system. I politely told them that the “B” in DBP meant “bank” and not “barrel.”  We financed businesses that will help make this system run instead of giving away projects according to the dictates of the political map.

Later on, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo requested a copy of the Philippine map showing the routes for the “nautical highway” where ports will be upgraded, silos built and agricultural produce aggregated. She installed that map in her own office and used it as some sort of shield against politicians who wanted projects in their localities.

The pork barrel system caused our budgeting system to be less than transparent and more politicized. This undermined the coherence of our infra investments. That has been a tragedy for our development.

Today, according to the official version of things, the pork barrel no longer exists. But the abolition of the pork barrel increased pressure for the traditional politicians to use their “power over the purse” to pressure heads of agencies to deliver projects to their constituencies. In their home districts, of course, they had informal say over which contractor was awarded the projects.

I am happy that the imperious congressmen sheepishly restored the CHR budget under a torrent of public protests – although they still cut that agency’s budget by about P114.8 million. The earlier act of reducing the CHR’s budget to only a thousand pesos sent a very bad signal about our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. It was, as I described it in this space, an utterly stupid move.

Perhaps this could be a turning point. In the forthcoming budget deliberations, our citizens will probably become more involved and our legislators might be imbued with a little more sense of accountability to the taxpayers.

The national budget is not a pie to be arbitrarily divided up by the politicians guided by nothing more than self-aggrandizement. It should be a true reflection of our priorities as a nation.


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