On Nov. 30, a full month from the day President Aquino delivered his speech that was a full-throttle defense of lump sums , a survey of extreme importance must be undertaken. It should gauge the public mood on the spending leeway that, historically, has belonged to the presidency . The straightforward question should be this : Do you want the president to retain DAP and the special purpose funds?
A favorable answer would show that President Aquino’s Oct. 30 speech changed the general perception of lump sums. A negative verdict would show that President Aquino has lost the argument . As simple as that. That the speech he delivered, which was designed to convince people that the lump sums are not evil but integral part of the national budget because they serve public good, was for nothing.
A favorable answer would retain the budget status quo – and render the arguments of the anti-lump sum protesters to the status of useless whining. The unbroken tradition of vesting the president with budgetary and spending flexibility lives on. The great presidential conundrum would happen if the public mood were negative and resolute against presidential spending prerogatives. We are in no position to divine what his reaction would be to a rejection by the people of the lump sums in the budget.
Would he dare swim against the current of public opinion? Or, would he yield to the principle of Vox populi, vox Dei? Soon, we will have the answers.
The decision to deliver a presidential speech that interrupted prime time tearjerkers on the major TV networks was not a whimsical decision on the part of the president. President Aquino was fully aware that the discussion of the pork scam was now in his neighborhood and very little was said of the “ original sin.” Meaning, the SARO-for-Cash exchange between the Napoles group of fake NGOs and the Napoles cohorts in the two chambers of Congress. That he is now billed as the “ King of Pork “ both saddened and angered him.
So the decision was to roll out his own propaganda offensive – the defense of the lump sums as important cognates of a growth-generating, integrity-endowed administration .
It is clear that the thing that President Aquino hates most about being president is this: being trapped in a corner and losing the argument especially on issues of integrity. Right now, he is there and he has to do something big – a major, major step – to preserve the historic tradition of a presidency vested with a spending leeway .
The challenge to the DAP and the special purpose funds is unprecedented in the history of the presidency, called the “ imperial presidency” because of its vast powers. All presidents in our history, from the commonwealth period, the pre-martial law republics and the post-martial law governments, enjoyed vast and unquestioned powers over the national budget. The creation of the Budget Development Coordinating Committee meant the further consolidation of the executive’s control over the budget process.
What was left to Congress was the congressional pork, not the traditional power to approve every item on the spending program.
President Aquino, for obvious reasons, does not want to be known as the president who meekly surrendered the vast presidential prerogative on public spending.
Reasons to keep spending leeway
The pragmatic reasons for retaining the spending leeway are just as important . President Aquino, or any president for that matter, sees himself as the omnipresent steward of what the nation needs, be these needs are focused on enhancing growth or responding to crises, both man-made or natural calamities.
The siege of Zamboanga City, the bloody urge of a secessionist group that wanted to show it was not a spent force, demonstrated a humanitarian crisis that was man-made. The 7.2 quake that ravaged parts of Central Visayas aptly demonstrated human tragedy caused by a natural calamity. Without the special purpose funds, there would be no ready response from government to ease the loss of lives and property .
The argument that the president needs flexibility to move around funds under savings and money from excess revenue to further growth targets is less visible to the naked eye, nebulous, rather. But it has been an unquestioned power of the presidency from time immemorial and the presidency will not be the same if the prerogative is eviscerated under Mr. Aquino’s watch.
The lonely visage of the president carrying the defense of the lump sums with no one except the likes of former journalist-turned-representative Ben Evardone (who, to his credit, is worth a dozen Toby Tiangcos) to backstop him raised the question of what ever happened to his aides. Former Senator Joker Arroyo, a critic of the young Aquino but a loyalist to the first President Aquino, said that the young Aquino has been unlucky with his aides and that no one would take the bullet for him.
The first Aquino presidency, said former Senator Arroyo, was different. The loyal core was ready to die for the president in the event there was a real and serious challenge to her presidency. And on a day-to-day basis, the aides of the first Aquino president were more than willing to get the lumps from her critics and detractors.
Now, sadly, it is PNoy and the likes of Cong. Ben. The aides who basked in the limelight with the president during the good times are, in this tempestuous times , largely voiceless and out of sight.