10/01/2013
Accelerate decelerate

Say what you want about Jinggoy Estrada, about how he's a thief dragging everybody else down or something, but you have to give him credit for starting the conversation on yet another facet of pork barrel: the Disbursement Acceleration Program, or DAP.

The way he's framed it in his speech on the Senate floor last week, it was a mechanism that allowed MalacaƱang to bribe legislators to support the impeachment of former Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona. At least P50 million in additional funds were given to senators who found Corona guilty, he claims.

Of course, this assertion has been shaky right after the speech. Estrada said that the DAP isn't a bribe, but rather, an incentive to senators who voted yes, a fact you can ascertain to be true by the timetable of the funds' release, which is half a year after the impeachment trial. But then again, the distribution is inconsistent: Pia Cayetano, who voted guilty, said she didn't receive any of the DAP. On the other hand, two of the three senators who did not find Corona guilty - Bongbong Marcos and Joker Arroyo - both received funds through DAP. Finally, if it was indeed a bribe, the amounts distributed were inconsistent between senators: Frank Drilon admitted that he received P100 million from the DAP at the end of 2011, while Chiz Escudero received P99 million from the DAP at the end of 2011.

Most of these figures came from the Department of Budget and Management, who immediately came to the defensive after the speech. Budget secretary Butch Abad maintains that the DAP is legal; the program - think of it as a stimulus package, like the Americans did during their economic recession a few years back - was made to, in his words, "help accelerate economic expansion" by allocating funds to government entities that may need them. It is within the power of the president to reallocate funds as he sees fit. It is not, he says, a tool for "political coercion".

The program was formed to combat government underspending during the early years of Noynoy Aquino's administration. When he assumed office, he made big play of how funding for government projects and requirements would be scrutinized even more. While this did contribute to the impression that the administration is fighting corruption, it also resulted in slower economic growth; the country's GDP crawled to 3.6% in 2011. But with the government incurring larger savings - due in part to the closer scrutiny - it was decided to reallocate these funds to government bodies who require them.

So why would these funds end up in the hands of legislators we don't trust but elect anyway? Abad says they issued requests for funding to implement their projects, a bit similar to how the controversial PDAF works. "Can I have money to buy snacks for me and my friends?" a kid might ask. "Sure, go ahead," his mother will say. Only this time the money involved goes upward to tens of millions of pesos, and the projects are, well... well, that is the question. What exactly are the projects the DAP funds are used for?

"Ang tanong: ito ba ay ginamit sa tama?" Drilon said in an interview. "May masama po ba kung ito ay pagbigyan kung sa tama naman ginamit?"

Nothing, Frank, nothing. In fact, when Aquino bleated on about the fact that the government has saved more money than the previous one, I was one of many who hoped that these funds would finally be used for more urgent, perhaps more concrete needs. More classrooms. More infrastructure. More hospitals. More supplies for soldiers and students and, well, student nurses. So why are these funds not allocated to the government agencies that are in charge of these projects? Why not to DepEd, or DPWH, or the AFP? I wouldn't know how these things work, exactly - the government may claim to be working for us, but they wouldn't tell us how they do.

But why again do they have to go to the legislators? Sure, because they were the ones who issued the letters of request. They're the ones who pointed out that, say, we need to help farmers in Dinalupihan, and we need to provide them with more farming starter kits. They're the ones who know these needs best, because they saw it themselves, so it'd be best if we give them the funds so they can properly oversee these projects. Am I right?

Or are we just paying them so they would put their names in large roadside signs? The Farmer Assistance Project in Barangay San Benito, Dinalupihan, Bataan was done through the help of (insert congressman here) and (insert senator here) with the help of (insert NGO here). Are we paying them so they could make grand gestures that will make them look good to the cameras? "In response to public sentiment I have moved to delete my PDAF from the 2014 budget." Are we paying them so we could believe that the people we voted for office are actually doing their jobs?

The reactions are trickling out, from tagged legislators and armchair experts (like me) and actual experts, and they run the gamut from "we need to audit these funds" to "we need to jail these sons of bitches" to "why are they distracting us from Janet Lim-Napoles?" Not exactly the discussion one could hope for, but considering how things have gone lately, what with the virtual criminalization of skepticism and pessimism, I'm just glad we have this conversation. At least we have this conversation. It's a deeper dig into how our money is actually spent. Considering how we're all talking about PDAF misuse lately, this can't be a distraction; this is all just an add-on. Maybe we could hope for more concrete suggestions - I'm thinking, is it possible to enact a law that limits the president's aforementioned powers for reallocating savings to, say, executive departments as opposed to legislators or LGUs? - but that's what we get when we're pretty much working blindly, with only assumptions and speculation and spun facts to get us by. Insert obligatory "that's why we really have to pass the FOI law" remark here.

If we're really to be confident that our government is working for us, we have to know how they do just that. Sure, you may our government is working for us. At least, as opposed to the president before this one, our economy is actually improving, foreign businesses are giving us a second look, and long-needed improvements to basic services are slowly, slowly rolling out. I'll give you that. But this conversation about the DAP stemmed from an allegation that it was used by this very government to curry favor with legislators so it can get its way. That allegation argues that a landmark in this government's fight for corruption - the removal of a chief justice who is supposedly biased towards one party and has accumulated wealth beyond his salary grade - is actually a political move that screams "there's a new boss in town".

And this government is adamant that corruption is on its way out in the Philippines, that the sun will finally shine again on these islands. This painstakingly crafted assertion is working, for now, but no matter what the truth is - no matter how MalacaƱang spokespeople explain it, how the budget department explains it, how the guilty-by-publicity parties explain it - the impression they're trying to make is breaking down. Slowly people will think that this administration is just as corrupt as the one it replaced, and all of its work will collapse under the weight of the allegations.

If the price for our country finally moving forward is billions of pesos to the pockets of those little circles of power in Batasan Hills, on the fringes of Pasay, and by the banks of the Pasig River, then we might want to rethink our priorities.

And your responses...

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