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Playing god with people's money

Publication Date : 11-01-2013

 

Philippine Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile played god last Christmas—with the people’s money. He distributed cash gifts, totaling 30 million pesos (US$738,000), to senators and Senate employees, taken from public funds.

Signing checks on his Senate podium like a paternalistic landlord, Enrile was heard saying, “Gusto ko, happy kayo (I want you to be happy).” He gifted a total of 22 senators: 18, 1.6 million pesos each, and four, only 250,000 pesos each.

The four were Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Antonio Trillanes IV, Alan Peter Cayetano, and his sister Pia Cayetano. They are recalcitrant senators who had tangled with Enrile over certain legislative issues in the past few months.

The uneven distribution of the cash gifts did not escape the senators’ notice, and created instant resentment. Most of the senators, extremely sensitive about their political autonomy, quickly noted that Enrile was playing favourites—something they found hard to swallow. Weren’t they all elected by the people nationwide? Why should most of them have larger windfalls?

More offensive was the fact that Enrile used public funds to reward those he liked and chastise those he disliked. No senator questioned Enrile’s discretion or prerogative to disburse public funds, but many in the public were appalled by the huge sums disbursed as Christmas gifts while public-improvement projects (for example, infrastructure) had been starved of investment funds during the past two years. To many people, this lavish flow of public funds as Christmas gifts to the members of Congress, who are one of the highest paid officials of the land, was a scandal of enormous proportions.

In distributing these gifts, Enrile took upon himself the task of passing judgement on who among his peers were “nice” to him or worthy of the larger slice of the gifts funded by money that does not belong to him, and who were “naughty” or worthy only of scraps from the festive Christmas banquet table. The gifts were labelled as “additional MOOE,” referring to maintenance and other operating expenses in the Senate’s budget. (The Senate President is authorised to release the additional MOOE, earmarked for the December tranches).

The 1.6 million peso windfall for each of the 18 senators was the biggest yet since Enrile was elected Senate President in November 2008.

Whether or not the MOOE funds were derived from savings on unspent funds, there is no hiding the fact that Enrile was dipping deep into the funds “realigned” from savings in the Senate’s budget. “The sky’s the limit” seemed to have been the operative principle behind this capricious distribution of “realigned” savings diverted to Christmas gifts.

According to press reports, the Senate’s MOOE for 2012 amounted to 1.4 billion pesos and include travel and communication expenses, rent, supplies and utilities, professional services and representation expenses.

The MOOE disbursements appeared to be a special fund and separate from the regular pork barrel fund allocated to senators and members of the House of Representatives. These allocations are officially called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). A senator gets an allocation of 200 million pesos each year, and congressmen, 70 million pesos each. According to GMA research, pork barrel funds account for up to 1 per cent of the national budget. In the 1.8-trillion peso General Appropriations Act for 2012, 24.89 billion pesos goes to congressional allocations.

The members of Congress do not receive cash allocations. They recommend priority projects to the Department of Public Works and Highways. They exercise wide discretion in identifying the projects. Funds are released to local government units to implement priority projects identified by legislators.

The MOOE disbursements do not fit into the process of using PDAF allocations on projects. They appear to augment fund resources for electoral spending—resources believed to be crucial for winning regular elections. How the senators will spend their cash windfall from Enrile, we don’t know. We are given an idea by one senator, Loren Legarda, although she claimed not to have received Enrile’s Christmas cash gift.

She said that if the money had been set aside for her, she would use it for a settlement programme for people in typhoon-ravaged areas.

What benefit will Enrile derive from the generous cash gifts? He boasts he has no reasons to bribe his colleagues to keep him in his office, given that he has been elected by them as Senate President twice since 2008. The truth is that Enrile faces threats of being unseated as Senate President when Congress resumes its session on January 21.

There have been rumblings of unrest in the Senate since before the Christmas holidays over his autocratic style of leadership, that fuelled rumours of a coup plot brewing underneath the apparent calm in the chamber. The antagonism that has erupted between him and the group of Senators Santiago, Trillanes, and the Cayetano siblings—over such issues as the reproductive health bill, which Enrile has opposed—is a symptom of this festering discontent. The role of Enrile as a crisis-breaker has spent itself after the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The administration does not need Enrile anymore to whip senators into line as much as during the Corona impeachment trial. It can dispense with his services. The Christmas windfall has no lasting effect in buying loyalty. But the fallout from the controversy over the abuse of discretion in disbursing public funds for Christmas gifts cannot be discounted.

*US$1=40.6 pesos

 

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