Exasperated
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2019 - 12:00am

Some people made it sound more dramatic than it could ever be: like walking into the dragon’s lair and poking him in the eye.

He announced it before hand and therefore it was not a surprise. In his face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Duterte raised the ruling of the arbitral court concerning the South China Sea territorial dispute.

Xi surely was not surprised. He had been briefed about the issues the Filipino president intended to raise. He responded by reiterating standing policy: China does not recognize the ruling.

There were no fireworks here. All that happened was a reiteration of the differing policies of two sovereign countries. China knew our stand; we knew theirs. Neither was going to change.

This was a diplomatic dance. Each knew their respective steps and performed as choreographed. That was that.

But it was not a politically fruitless event.

President Duterte has been under pressure from domestic critics to take up the Den Hague ruling with his Chinese counterpart. Failure to do so, according to the resident critics, constituted subservience to a foreign power – or worse, approximating an act of treason. They kept pushing that chip onto his shoulder each time he had to meet his Chinese counterpart to conduct business.

Duterte’s domestic critics have this penchant for confusing symbolic acts with substantial ones. They clamored endlessly for this ritual of raising the arbitral ruling to happen. The President obliged them, pointless as the exercise might be.

Xi completely understood Duterte had to do what he had to do. Duterte understood Xi would have to abide by standing policy or lose his nationalistic base. Both are statesmen of the first order.

Having done what each had to do, the leaders buckled down to the business of the day. There were cooperative agreements to hammer out, the most important for us being the joint exploration for natural gas in the Recto Bank area.

Malampaya is quickly running out of natural gas deposits and our energy security will be jeopardized unless we find new sources. We cannot wait for hell to freeze over or for China to finally recognize our sovereignty over the area – whichever comes first. We need new gas sources very soon or we will be in serious trouble.

Duterte’s domestic critics must be pretty exasperated that the president finally raised the arbitral ruling with his counterpart and the issue was quickly set aside for more productive items on the agenda. They now have one less issue to needle the President with.

Pork-free

Some of the congressmen must have been taken aback when Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano materialized at the budget hearing for the DPWH. He opened the interpellation by asking Secretary Mark Villar if there was any pork in his department’s budget.

Villar responded by saying that with the new line-item budgeting process, there could be no pork inserted in his budget. Cayetano followed up by asking if there were any funds “parked” in any of his department’s programs. Again, Villar responded in the negative.

That second question requires some translation.

The usual practice in the past was for congressmen to insert lump sums into the DPWH’s budget. From those lump sums, they would later draw funding for their pet projects in their districts.

The (anomalous) practice resulted in a hostile squabble between the House and the Senate leading to a delay in the enactment of the 2019 budget. When he finally signed the budget bill into law, President Duterte vetoed P95.37 billion worth of projects inserted into the DPWH budget. As he vetoed that particular item, Duterte declared he “will not tolerate corruption in (his) administration.”

The Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, declared the congressional pork barrel unconstitutional. This decision was rendered after much controversy over the Aquino administration’s “disbursement acceleration program” (DAP) and the bloating of the pork barrel used to buy political support.

That decision effectively rendered the congressional pork barrel illegal. But our politicians, in their immense creativity, found other ways to load their projects onto the national budget. One method was to “park” funds in government agencies, later to be drawn for their use.

When he assumed the speakership, Cayetano called on his colleagues to shun corrupt practices and redeem the image of the House. It was essential to stop the practice of congressional insertions in the budget.

Cayetano likewise pledged to pass the 2020 budget on time. We saw how the delay of the 2019 budget due to intramurals over pork in the legislative branch caused so much damage to our economic performance. In the first half of this year, the election period notwithstanding, our growth slowed to 5.5% against the official projection of 6% to 7%. Government’s failure to disburse P1 billion during each day that passed under a reenacted budget took a toll on our growth momentum.

In a practical sense, Cayetano does not want to provoke another squabble with the Senate over anything that resembles pork, illegal insertions or parked funds. That could again lead to next year’s budget impounded in the bicameral committee.

The previous practice of concealing pork by “parking” funds has been thoroughly exposed. It would be folly for the congressmen to try and pull that old trick one more time.

In the past, congressmen wasted a lot of precious legislative time trying to insert their pet projects into department budgets. If the practice of congressional insertion ceases, budget deliberations would proceed more efficiently.

We hope Cayetano succeeds in his effort to wean legislators away from their pork-seeking ways.

ALAN PETER CAYETANO
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