CONGRESS is supposed to control the purse strings in the Philippine system. But because the Constitution arms him with vast powers as head of a highly centralized government, it is the President who has the biggest say in how much of the national budget an office, including his own, will get each year
Charged with taking the initial steps in the budget process is the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), a line agency of the executive branch. It is the President who tells the DBM what he wants the budget to be like, what to prioritize in it, as well as how he wants public funds allocated — hopefully on the basis of well thought-out policies — to the many areas and concerns of governance that, among others, include education, defense, the economy and development, the environment, health, and foreign relations, etc.
As drafted by the DBM with his inputs, mandate and supervision, he submits the proposed budget to Congress. As intricate as the process may appear to be on paper, it basically consists of the President talking to himself, the DBM being no more than one of his official alter egos. In the present circumstances in which his allies and accomplices are dominant in both Houses of Congress, he doesn’t even have to explain anything to that body.
Although Congress is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government, its independence from the President in the making of the budget has mostly been uncertain and even illusory. The President of the Philippines usually has enough political support in that body for his proposed budget to sail smoothly through it. At the same time, he can, and he usually does make sure, that his allies among its members will have something to gain from approving the budget as he has proposed it. What the House of Representatives approved last Sept. 20 with hardly any changes was basically Mr. Duterte’s handiwork, a document that once implemented should keep everyone in Congress and Malacañang happy.
And yet the budget is far too important to be just another target of partisanship and transactional politics. It is a reflection of the government’s sense of priorities — of what areas of governance need to be addressed first and assured of adequate funding. It is also an instrument of accountability. On the basis of its knowledge about it, the citizenry can decide whether its priorities are sound or not, and demand an accounting of how effectively public funds will be used, or have been used, to address them.
Because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “super majority” in it, the House of Representatives’ hasty approval of the P4.1-trillion proposed national budget for 2020 — it approved it only three days after Mr. Duterte certified it as urgent and two weeks before the October deadline — was hardly surprising. Despite most members of Congress’ long-standing record of putting themselves above nation, people, and society, what was surprising this year was how unashamedly that body pandered to the wishes of Mr. Duterte, whose proposal to double his own intelligence and confidential funds for 2020 to a hefty P4.5 billion from this year’s P2.5 billion they approved without question.
Some observers have correctly pointed out that that amount, or even a portion of it, is more than enough to enable the Department of Health (DoH) to do a better job of preventing the further spread of dengue, measles, polio, and other communicable diseases including diphtheria, of which some cases have also been discovered in the aftermath of the continuing decline in the vaccination rate among the populace. The same amount can also fund the construction of several hundred classrooms, as well as clinics and other health facilities.
They approved for themselves the P100 million bonanza the Duterte budget allots each member of the House, and the P50 million bounty for each of the 22 deputy speakers whose posts Duterte ally Alan Peter Cayetano and his accomplices created to reward those who led the campaign to elect him Speaker. But the same House majority also approved Mr. Duterte’s cuts in the proposed budget of the Department of Education (DepEd) by some P21 billion, and that of the DoH by P16. 6 billion. Charged with implementing the free tertiary education program, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) budget was also cut, by P11.65 billion.
If the national budget is any indication of regime priorities, as proposed by Mr. Duterte and as approved by the House, the message it is sending is that further enriching the alleged representatives of the people is first. As Senator Panfilo Lacson pointed out, those worthies will get at least P100 million each in pork barrel funds that they may use for whatever purpose. The same budget is also saying that Mr. Duterte now has over P2 billion more to do with as he pleases, since intelligence and confidential funds are not subject to COA (Commission on Audit) oversight.
The same budget is also declaring that despite the perennial shortfall in classrooms and teachers in the public school system, the education of the country’s young is of little or no concern at all to both Mr. Duterte and the ladies and gentlemen of the House of ill-repute. It is also announcing, for the information of the entire country and the world, that they couldn’t care less about enhancing and maintaining the health surveillance and vaccination system, despite the surge in the number of dengue and measles cases and the return of poliomyelitis to the country after more than 30 years.
The latter health issues, as almost everyone knows by now, were at the very least partly created by the partisans of the Duterte regime’s politicization of the Dengvaxia issue in 2017 by whipping up mass hysteria over the supposed dangers of vaccinations.
That campaign was led by a non-doctor with the connivance of certain government and media personalities. Like their patrons, that sorry band was completely indifferent to the consequences of what they were doing as long as they could heap blame on the administration prior to that of Mr. Duterte’s.
That episode only helps validate the conclusion that only greed rather than public interest, citizen well-being, health, or even safety, is what drives the dynasties, their collaborators and their agents who have monopolized political power for decades.
What afflicts this unfortunate country is a disease worse than African Swine Fever. Long native to it, unlike ASF, greed is transferable from person-to-person and from one generation to the next of those who call themselves this nation’s leaders.
But what they’ve created isn’t a new reign of greed. That vice has been, for the past many decades of their benighted rule, one of the attributes of the Philippine power elite that goes back to Rizal’s time. Rather is it a reign of greed pushed to limitless heights, from the millions to the billions and trillions — and at the immense cost of the health, education, welfare, and future of the people of this sorry land.
The Duterte proposed and House-approved budget still has to go to the Senate. But no one should expect things to be any better or even any different in that once distinguished body, considering the composition of its majority. Things could be even worse. Greed is after all already of epidemic proportions in these isles of want, and as communicable a disease as polio, diphtheria or dengue.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).