ASIDE FROM being the “last peaceful alternative,” the People’s Initiative (PI) campaign to fix the government’s “corruption-prone” budget system is the “last best hope” for majority of Filipinos who are “angry and frustrated” with the administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, former Budget secretary Benjamin Diokno said on Sunday.
“Most Filipinos are angry and they want real reforms. Because they are disappointed and frustrated with the elected leaders, they are willing to take the act of legislation, through the people’s initiative, into their hands. This is an act of direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy,” Diokno told The Manila Times.
Diokno is at the frontline of the PI campaign along with former chief justice Reynato Puno, former National treasurer Leonor Briones, lawyer Romulo Macalintal, Philippine Constitutional Association and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
He teaches at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
“The first best hope is for the Supreme Court to rise to the occasion and declare the DAP unconstitutional and define clearly the areas of responsibility of the Executive and the Legislature. An ideal budget system is one which is transparent, where Congress has and exercises the power of the purse, where the power of the President to impound appropriations require congressional concurrence, where the Commission on Audit exercises some prosecutorial powers, and where ‘savings’ is strictly defined and observed,” he said.
Diokno said an ideal budget system “is unlikely to emerge given the present leadership. In this sense, the people’s initiative could be the last best hope for this country.”
According to him, true reforms in the flawed budget system can only be done by a “truly reform-minded” president which Aquino is not.
“Unless real reforms are done, the dysfunctional, corruption-prone budget system will continue to reign not only now but in the future. But President Aquino has drawn the line: he likes DAP [Disbursement Acceleration Program] and is determined to defend it,” Diokno pointed out.
He stressed that a PI campaign is doable because more Filipinos are angry over DAP, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and other forms of pork barrel.
“The discontent transcends party lines. It’s total—rich and poor, young and old, urbanites and rural folks, catholics, protestants, INCs [Iglesia ni Cristo], Muslims and other religious denominations,” Diokno said.
Last week, Puno gave the same assessment on how the people feel about the controversies involving the pork barrel. He said that PI is the last remaining peaceful option to institute reforms and scrap all forms of pork.
Sharing his thoughts at a roundtable discussion with the editors and reporters of the Times, Puno said this alternative was incorporated in the 1987 Constitution as the people’s last nonviolent option to bring about changes that Congress cannot deliver.
Puno said the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions did not have such a provision which is “the reserve power given to the sovereign people in 1989 by Republic Act 6735.”
“When EDSA [People Power Revolution] 1 came to pass, they expanded the direct sovereignty of the people. Congress now shares the power to enact laws with the people,” he said.
Puno and Diokno confirmed that the PI campaign will go into full swing by the end of November, after a People’s Congress in Cebu City that will decide on the provisions of the budget reform law.
The former chief magistrate said he was willing to write the draft law once its form and substance have been determined.
“The draft budget reform law is being finalized and will be adopted by the multi-sectoral PI Congress sometime in January 2014. The formal signature campaign will then follow,” he said.
A budget expert, Diokno said the DAP violates the Constitution and the basic doctrine that once Congress has approved the budget, and the President has signed it into law, the President cannot rearrange the budget and create a budget within the general appropriations law.
Legislators, on the other hand, cannot and should not participate in the implementation of the budget, he said.
“Any act that would upset this intended balance of power is deemed repugnant and unconstitutional. The President cannot slice and dice the general appropriations law, reshape and change its budget priorities, and come up with an altered spending package—a new, unauthorized budget within the budget. Allowing it effectively changes the balance of power,” he said.
Diokno shot down Budget Secretary Florencio Abad’s defense that the DAP is a “stimulus” program created to spur various projects.
Abad’s claim, Diokno said, was only a palusot (excuse).
“The first order of business is to establish the legal basis for the DAP. None exists. I have not seen any budget memorandum circular or any executive order creating the DAP. But I’m sure Budget Secretary Abad must have written a formal Memorandum for the President asking for the creation of the DAP, stating therein the sources and uses of the P85.5-billion savings,” he said.
But in the absence of an explicit approval by the President of such a memo, Abad exceeded his authority, Diokno said.
“The use of savings has been specifically assigned to the President and other heads of constitutional offices. It cannot be further delegated,” he said.
“The DAP is clearly unconstitutional, and its rationale, no matter how noble, cannot make it constitutional. First of all, there would have been no need for the DAP had the President and his men done their respective jobs well,” he added.
Assuming that savings are available, augmentation has to satisfy two conditions in the budget law—first, that it is applied to an existing item in the General Appropriations Act (GAA), and second, it has to be within the same office.
The “simple, clear rule” is that all the items in the budget law are deemed to have passed congressional scrutiny, and what is not in the GAA has not gone through congressional scrutiny and approval, and hence cannot be augmented, Diokno said. Asking lawmakers to identify new projects for funding from savings is clearly an illegal act since it violates the clear rules of augmentation, Diokno added.
“There is a clear difference between an act of an individual legislator and an act of Congress. The act of identifying projects after the budget has been approved by Congress is an individual act. Yet, only Congress, acting as a collective body, may authorize the disbursement of public funds,” he explained.
“The irony is that the DAP is hardly a fiscal stimulus. It is partly quick disbursing but not necessarily job-creating, partly political patronage, and partly financial engineering to show a faster rate of disbursement than what it would appear,” Diokno said.
He defined a real fiscal stimulus program as “one where public policies result in job creation and higher consumer spending. It could be through higher and faster spending or tax cuts.”