Aquino govt’s claim to fame is...

Benjamin E. Diokno

Posted on September 10, 2014

WHAT WILL BE the Aquino III administration’s claim to fame? The crumbling infrastructure, rising criminality, increasing misery of victims of natural and man-made calamities, high and persistent joblessness, and deepening poverty -- these are what Mr. Aquino will bequeath to his predecessor as he steps down on June 30, 2016.

These problems cannot be solved overnight. Hence, things are likely to get worse before they get better. The MRT will break down more frequently as repairs and new train cars will trickle in early 2016.

The main coach of the MRT train that overshot the barrier in Pasay Rotonda also hit a motorcycle on Taft Avenue. -- AFP
The power crisis will be more pronounced as demand for electricity continues to outstrip new power plant capacities. As the present administration fades away, the power shortage would become increasingly disruptive.

Highways and bridges will continue to crumble as existing infrastructure deteriorates much faster than new construction. Traffic congestion will continue to be a drag on economic progress. The economic loss due to the nightmarish Metro Manila traffic is estimated at 6.8% of the size of the economy -- and rising.

The Philippines rank the poorest in airports and seaport infrastructure among the ASEAN-5 (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) bloc. Yet, new airports and seaports take years to build. Meanwhile, the once modern and mighty NAIA airport will continue to be the symbol of what’s wrong with this country.

As one of the most calamity-prone areas on planet Earth, the Philippines has done miserably in the way it faces calamities. The poor state of the victims of the man-made calamity in Zamboanga and the victims of Yolanda in Leyte demonstrates how insensitive and inept the Aquino III administration has been, and continues to be, in managing calamities.

Massive amounts of donated food was allowed to rot. The Commission on Audit discovered that not a centavo of the P121 million spent by the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) went to calamity victims. The amount was supposed to be part of OCD’s Quick Response Fund (QRF). Yet, Typhoon Yolanda struck in November 2013, close to a year ago. Incredible but true.

The OCD is in no way short of funding, the CoA clarified. In fact, it had P692.8 million in QRF on standby for 2013. The sum spent was only 17% of the available fund, leaving a balance of P571.6 million untouched.

This underspending could be true for the other agencies with QRF, such as: the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), P662.5 million; Department of National Defense (Office of the Secretary), P352.5 million; Department of Public Works and Highways, P600 million; Department of Education, P550 million; Department of Agriculture (Office of the Secretary), P500 million; and the National Irrigation Administration, P500 million.

In 2013, the total budget allocation for the Calamity Fund was P7.5 billion. In 2014, the sum was doubled to P13 billion. In addition, P20 billion was appropriated for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program. That’s a huge sum of P33 billion for calamity, rehabilitation and reconstruction. To date, after eight months, how much has been released, obligated and disbursed?

How can government authorities afford to stall and sit on huge amounts of resources intended for calamity victims in Zamboanga, Leyte, Bohol, Cebu and elsewhere while human suffering continues? In the face of ample public funds for the relief and rehabilitation, how can government authorities allow the calamity victims to continue to suffer under inhuman conditions? It’s not for lack of funds; rather it’s for lack of compassion and political will.

In the meantime, what happened to the cash donations received by the Philippine government? Have they been distributed to calamity victims or are they conveniently stashed away in government depository banks? Is this another case of government failure?

It’s budget season once more -- that time of the year when Executive officials trek to both houses of Congress to justify their proposed budgets for the ensuing fiscal year.

In the past four years, Congress has been lax and less thorough in their exercise of its power of the purse. It has given the Executive Department virtually a free pass. Congress passes the General Appropriations Act after only a perfunctory review of the President’s budget.

With the Supreme Court decisions on the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF (legislators cannot participate in post-budget approval activities) and on the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP (the President cannot usurp the congressional power of the purse), I assume that legislators will now be pro-active, vigilant and serious about their role as representatives of the people on policy decision-making.

The Filipino people expect their representatives to ask where the people’s taxes are going, who benefits from the budget, and whether the Executive Department is spending their money in accordance with the general appropriations act (GAA), the budget law that Congress has approved.

I see the GAA as a contract between the Executive Department and Congress. For a specified amount of goods or service (for example, number of elementary school children, number of kilometers of paved roads, and so on) that the Executive Department commits to deliver, Congress appropriates a given amount.

The essence of the budget review should be the justification of the Executive Department that each item in the budget is socially worthwhile, and that the proposed program is the most cost-effective way of achieving the objective.

In addition, each department head should demonstrate his ability to deliver what he promised to deliver in the past. For example, what did the department head promised to deliver in 2013 and how much did he actually delivered? How much has been spent? Is there a close link between amounts spent and outputs delivered?

For the first half of this year, January to June, how much did he promise to deliver and how much was actually delivered? How much has been spent?

These questions are crucial given the record of underspending and underperforming of the Aquino administration in the last four years.

In the last four years, the President and Congress had not given the budget process the importance that it deserves. Yet, the budget is the lifeblood of the whole bureaucracy. It gives meaning and substance to the skeletal dreams and aspirations of any society.

The recent Supreme Court decisions on the PDAF and the DAP have given the President and Congress a new beginning for a proper and responsible budget process. If only for these two decisions, the High Court has secured its rightful place in history.

The President might opt to continue with his political mischief. On the part of Congress, it should seize this rare opportunity to reclaim its power of the purse. It should not drop the ball.

Benjamin E. Diokno is a former secretary of Budget and Management