Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 26 January 2013


The insults, revelations, accusations being hurled or insinuated on the Senate floor have riveted public attention, which of course is to be expected, because who can resist all these juicy tidbits after all? But the concentration on the trees should not distract us from what is or has been happening in the forest. Let’s not forget the big picture, please.

And that is, since 1998, there seems to be a mini pork barrel fund that the senators (and apparently members of the House of Representatives as well) have been feeding off, courtesy of some provision inserted in the General Appropriations Act at the time. In effect, the maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) budgets of the legislators have been and are being treated like “confidential and intelligence funds” (CIFs), in the sense that when liquidating these expenses, the legislators do not need to produce receipts or other documentary evidence to justify them. All that is needed is a “certification,” signed by them, that they had spent the money on MOOE items.

Can you imagine the chutzpah? How can Congress possibly justify treating its MOOE like CIFs, the latter presumably involving national security matters? What is worse, in the aftermath of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office brouhaha over their CIFs, the Department of Budget and Management last July issued a statement saying that all CIFs would be subject to strict liquidation, and that “mere certification of CIF uses will not be allowed.” Apparently our legislators are exempt from those stricter procedures.

So it is easy to see why budget savings of the Senate and the House of Representatives, be they for the institution as a whole or for the accounts of the individual members, are “realigned” as much as possible as MOOE. Where, as mentioned above, liquidation is by mere certification. Neat, huh?

Commission on Audit Chair Grace Pulido Tan guested in the TV show that I host (“Bawal Ang Pasaway Kay Mareng Winnie” which will be aired on Monday evening on GMA News TV), and she recounted that the matter of this “liquidation by certification” came to her attention as early as 2011 because the COA auditors were getting very uncomfortable about having to approve expenditures in audit simply upon the presentation of a certification. But their hands were tied, because “it was the law.” A law passed by the lawmakers, it is obvious, to benefit themselves. Is that abuse of power or not? And when her auditors would try to ask for at least some evidence that would buttress those certifications, they were brushed off with statements to the effect that this was a tradition, and had been going on for years. That when Tan checked the records, she discovered that the tradition started in 1998.

Exactly what are the magnitudes involved? How much of the government budgets (national and local) are allocated to CIFs? Tan did not have the figures with her, but says that a COA study on the matter will be coming out soon. Well then, how much of the legislators’ budgets are MOOE and thus escape any genuine audit?

By law, COA is required to publish every year, in newspapers of general circulation, the itemized list of expenses of the senators and House members. And it does so. However, I must confess that until a couple of days ago (when the Tan interview was being taped), I had never set eyes on such lists. And yet there they were, courtesy of the “Bawal” researchers who secured copies reaching back to 2001, from the newspapers, the latest being for 2010 (the 2011 lists will be out soon, said Tan).

And what do they show? Well, let’s take the 2010 figures. In a table titled “Itemized List of Amounts Paid To and Expenses Incurred for Each Senator (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2010),” these amounts totaled P472 million, of which P186 million, or about 40 percent was for “other MOOE.” But wait a minute: the table has a hardly legible footnote, which says that “these itemized expenses do not include expenses as Permanent Committee Members and/or Officers of the Senate”—amounting to P590 million. Assume another 40 percent of that was for MOOE, and you have at least another P236 million worth of expenditures that essentially could be spent at the whim of the legislators. The bottom line is that the senators in 2010 could spend (or pocket) with impunity an average of around P18 million. Loose change for them, maybe, but that’s the people’s money there.

Until the Senate controversy featuring Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and some senators (it is hard to call them the minority because Joker Arroyo never became involved, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago seems, technically at least, to belong to the majority), burst upon us. For 14 years the senators were content with the situation—until the s–t hit the fan, and this, only because some were not content with their “share.” It was all right to screw the Filipino people, but it was not all right to screw some senators.

But this cloud of controversy and frenzy of mudslinging in the Senate seems to have a silver lining—and that is, at least the people are now made even more aware of how our legislators (and I include the House of Representatives here) have to be very closely monitored, so they can’t get their fingers in the cookie jar with such impunity. And hopefully these servants of the people will, in the next Congress, remove that scandalous, unconscionable, self-serving practice.