The national budget is the heart and soul of any government. A former budget director to both former US President Bill Clinton and incumbent President Barack Obama, Jack Lew, once described it as “the tapestry of a nation’s hopes and dreams.” Everything, from the growth targets to what sectors and regions that a particular government wants to empower or promote, is written and funded in the national spending program.
In this context, the “how much should be spent” and “where to spend” aspects of the national budget often turn into contentious and battleground issues in the body politics here and elsewhere. A group of hard-core conservatives in the US House of Representatives recently tried to leverage the budget negotiations to defund Obama’s health care law, an intransigence that led to the temporary shutdown of the so-called non-essentials of the government bureaucracy and $24 billion drain on the American economy.
A fight over public spending policy and the size and scope of state investments in the world’s most powerful and wealthiest democracy can really, really go to that ridiculous and ruinous extreme. And for the first time in our contemporary history, we have the same bruising and intense battle over how the national budget should be spent and who should be in control over the spending process.
The government of President Benigno Aquino 3rd is right now faced with its biggest political crisis ever, and it is about the “how to spend” aspect of the national budget. The president and all the president’s men have claimed that the president, or the president acting through a surrogate, can move funds that technically fall under “savings” to fund growth-inducing priority programs under a scheme called DAP, or disbursement acceleration program.
Look at the integrity of public spending under the DAP, which comes on top of the legal leg upon which it stands , the president and his men have been saying. Don’t quibble so much, they have been telling the critics of the DAP, about the spending nuances and technicalities . All of these are for a higher purpose.
Have their arguments resonated?
The 15- point drop in the approval rating of the president is the incontrovertible proof that the general public does not buy the “DAP is legal and it is imbued with integrity“ argument. The DAP, as the polling results have shown, is a hugely unpopular policy. The public sees the defense of the DAP as either nonsense or clutching at the flimsiest of legal straws.
Instead of a spending policy, which is Malacanang’s description of DAP, the DAP is viewed as a lump sum appropriation , a vast money pool that can be recklessly and illegally moved around and juggled.
The rising tide of the public outrage over the DAP is the driving force behind six petitions filed with the Supreme Court to scrap the DAP on the ground of unconstitutionality. Constitutionalist and budget experts have weighed in – also arguing that the DAP is a usurpation by the executive branch of Congress’s power over the public purse. Both the release or transfer of public funds is prohibited without congressional approval, according to the petitioners.
The presidential spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, often looks like a newbie lawyer fresh from a root canal session while in the course of defending the DAP from the legal assaults that can come from either Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a member of the Con-com of 1987, or former Senator Joker Arroyo , the executive secretary of the first Aquino administration. Lacierda’s near stuttering showcases this hard truth: how low the DAP has sunk in the public esteem , dragging along the approval rating of a popular president.
That the stink of the DAP is in now at par with the stench of the PDAF, and that protesters are now fighting a two-front war to scrap both PDAF and DAP, are now two irreversible realities . Despite the plea from some congressional leaders to just vent the public ire on the PDAF so the president can have some flexibility in funds use and management, the die is cast for most of the protesters.
Scrap both. Both should go. Right now, the public sentiment has no mercy on anything that smacks of a lump sum in the national budget.
That the DAP would get hanged in the public square and would get damned in the bar of public opinion just like PDAF was not totally expected by Malacanang. That the furor over the SARO-for-Cash exchange, allegedly transacted between the Napoles NGOs and many senators and congressmen , would not migrate into the DAP and the executive branch’s fund release mechanisms, turned out into a wish list.
DAP and PDAF are now the very public faces of what is very wrong with the budget process.
The very real need to help rebuild Zamboanga City, the typhoon-affected areas and the ravaged areas of quake-hit Central Visayas has failed to ease the public opposition to any movement and transfer of funds by the president or his surrogate. This is how hard line the opposition to fund transfer/realignment is. This is how hard-core the various groups and individuals opposed to DAP is.
It looks like President Aquino has no other option but to relegate DAP into the scrap heap of budgetary history.