Why Abad should resign, and why Aquino should let him go

Posted on July 16, 2014

This is an extract from an editorial that first appeared Saturday on InterAksyon.com:

PRESIDENT AQUINO on Friday rejected an offer by Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad to resign.

President Benigno Aquino (L) gestures as he answers questions while Budget Secretary Florencio Abad (R) listens during a press conference with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Manila on Oct. 17, 2012. -- AFP
In the face of growing public clamor for an accounting of the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), preferably by the man who conceived of it, the President stood by his most trusted Cabinet member, adviser and mentor. “Even our most vociferous critics grant that DAP has benefited our people,” Mr. Aquino said. To accept Abad’s resignation, he then added, “is to assign to him a wrong and I cannot accept the notion that doing right by our people is a wrong.”

It was merely unfortunate, then, that the Supreme Court had assigned to Abad and PNoy a wrong, advancing the notion that, wouldn’t you know it, “doing right by our people” (or having the intention to do so) can indeed, at times, actually go so, so wrong.

What the Supreme Court ultimately established about the DAP is that this refers to creatively, dubiously, and finally illegally booked “savings” transferred unconstitutionally to different branches of government, in the process making a mockery of the separation of powers, and dangerously upsetting the fine system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. Some consequences of Abad’s brainchild are already manifest: Neither Malacañang, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), nor even the Commission on Audit (an independent body that got an improper allocation of DAP funds) does not quite know where to begin to account for the disbursements. The extent of how DAP has compromised every pillar and independent agency of the Republic, nobody can yet ascertain, but clearly the questions and implications of its wanton implementation will reverberate for months and years to come.

The stubborn position of Malacañang -- which propounds that there are no regrets, no need to apologize, and no one to be held accountable -- is therefore untenable. It is an arrogant statement at best. At worst, it perilously asks for more trouble for all of us.

Malacañang asks: How can the Supreme Court on one hand praise the results of DAP, but then on the other, hold that people should be held accountable for a grotesque creation?

The answer, of course, is precisely that the Supreme Court is composed of justices, not fascists.

The Court is indeed open to acknowledging the benefits of DAP (and, actually, for that matter, of PDAF or the Priority Development Assistance Fund) and even allowed that people and programs that benefited in good faith need not automatically stop their programs or return the funds released to them. DAP, moreover, ostensibly allowed the government to pump-prime the economy, accelerating spending where Mr. Aquino had been accused of standing still.

But all of that is merely by way not only of acknowledging the rationale behind the creation of DAP, but also of establishing how this was ultimately a self-serving trick of creative accounting. The Aquino Administration was not only slow, it was deliberately (even proudly) slow. In its first two years of office, its obsession with being squeaky-clean had it sitting on its hands, on our funds, like “the worthless servant” who received one talent and went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Smote on the cheek by public dismay, the administration created DAP to instigate some quick impression -- some economists say illusion -- of spending.

The problem lay in the burying. For the Constitution does not allow that as saving. And where there were no savings, there could not have been the open-ended funds to be creative with in the first place.

Mr. Aquino and Mr. Abad lament: “So it seems we disagree. But why are we being punished? A justice system that presumes innocence until guilt is proven also, by definition, assumes good faith. We have done good with that money, we intended nothing but good, have we not? You said so yourself.”

Two leaps in logic aggravate the exasperation of the public taken as fools. One, being called out as wrong is not the same as being punished. And two, good deeds and good intentions do not equate with good faith.

Meanwhile, it is not true that the Supreme Court has already persecuted the President or any of its Cabinet men. All that the justices have done is to underscore circumstantial evidence of bad faith. Mr. Abad is not only secretary of DBM, not only a respected professor of public policy and governance, he was chairman of the House Appropriation Committee no less. As Associate Justice Arturo Brion wrote: “It is inconceivable that he did not know the illegality or unconstitutionality that tainted his brainchild.”

Is that persecution? Not quite. The justices have gone so far as to warn the Aquino administration, not threaten it. For indeed, as a trier of laws and not of fact, it is not the high tribunal’s place to ascribe guilt and accountability. However, in finding that the implementation and conception of DAP was constitutionally challenged, it also saw that a logical momentum is already playing out. The justices in other words merely advise the administration to be forewarned. Someone will be held accountable.

Those who bleed for the kindness, forthrightness and vision of Butch Abad are, unfortunately, neither here nor there. Abad must precisely stand on the very principles for which his fans raise him, hold everything to account, take responsibility, and offer himself up for Daang Matuwid.

If Abad is all that his supporters insist he is, his only option is to resign. For he is key to allowing for the conditions that will only begin to address the doubts that have been raised by DAP. Doubts that affect every single institution and pillar of this democratic republic. DAP, let us finally recall, has raised serious questions about whether or not, in short-circuiting then hot-wiring the national budget, the executive emasculated then bribed Congress. DAP has cast a cloud over the Comelec, and then COA, the very agency that should independently watch over its implementation. DAP has raised very serious and legitimate suspicion that congressmen and senators were offered pork barrel funds at the height of the most pivotal, defining and important campaign under Aquino’s term -- the impeachment of the Chief Justice of the Republic. If there is good faith to be granted, the beneficiary should actually be the judiciary, which itself, it turns out, also received DAP funds.

Yes, the Court, too, has self-interest here. And yet our justices have unanimously provided a painful opening to break this horrid chain-reaction of taint and suspicion. Butch Abad should embrace his turn to help restore order in our checks and balances.

Are we asking the President to let a good man go?

Let us grant that the answer is “yes.”

So what? Go get another one.

But time and again this administration has been led astray by the delusion and hubris that nobody in this leadership is replaceable. That precisely because this is a team of good men, the Aquino administration is entitled to considerations and exemptions from its own standards of what it means to be matuwid.

The refusal of the Aquino administration to even entertain the thought of one its own being asked to account, to explain, is premised on what has ever been its fatal flaw. Press them hard enough, and they will protest: Kami naman ito, hindi na sila.

But apply the WWPDHIBGMA test: What would PNoy do had it been GMA?

Had it been his predecessor who conceived of DAP, the answer is obvious.

PNoy will say that good intentions do not equate with good faith. He will say: Public pronouncements are easy and cheap, and in any case, do not always jibe with public interest. He will say: Trust and protect our laws and systems, not the words of our leaders.

It is for the Aquino administration in particular that the conviction of good intentions, and the conviction that sheer force of goodness can impose good governance, is counter-intuitive. Time and again PNoy has demonstrated that too much faith in one’s unassailability is in fact anathema to good governance.

Recall, see, and admit, how FOI lays lifeless in the hands of this administration. Why rush to legislate transparency, after all, when the transparent (if ironically dense) are the ones in power?

Are behest loans behest loans when released at the behest of NGOs we trust? Shall we really condemn this tweaking of the pork barrel system, when it is reformists who are manning the tables? Is “impounding” of funds under GMA different from impounding under PNoy (as former Rep. Noynoy Aquino seems to suggest to his contemporary self?)

The same conceit behind all of the above was the mother of DAP. Abad must take responsibility not only to demonstrate accountability for an act that has so alarmed the guardians of our Constitution. He must be as transparent with DAP as he was so conscientious in answering questions about PDAF. He must show contrition for the wider implications his initiative had almost gotten away with. DAP smacked of the same patronage politics PNoy had vowed to undo. It brought suspicion to bear upon every pillar of our democracy -- even every milestone of Daang Matuwid thus far.