Everyone has been writing, talking, raving about, and criticizing President Aquino’s recent State of the Nation Address (SONA), but before anyone out there bursts a blood vessel, I would have you know some sobering truths about the SONA that could help us come to our collective senses.
1. SONA is a needless spectacle
The President is not required under the Constitution to deliver a SONA at the opening of the regular session of Congress. It is optional.
The relevant provision in the Charter, Article VII, Section 23, reads:
“The president shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session. He may also appear before it at any other time.”
But he can, if he desires, present legislative measures for consideration by the Congress, or articulate his agenda of government.
Why didn’t anyone tell Aquino this? He could have been spared the ordeal of reading his agonizing 2-hour speech on the Teleprompter, of choking back tears before the TV cameras, and of having to lie about the state of the nation.
2. SONA as political theater
No one told him this happy news because everyone was caught up in their respective visions of the opening of Congress, such as:
• All the president’s men and women— in their fantasy that PNoy would turn the event into a triumph.
• The president’s sisters—in their daydream of Ninoy and Cory’s apotheosis
• Women legislators and congressional spouses—in their desire to parade in gowns.
• Activist groups in their vision of the Congress opening as an opportunity to prove they are still a live force in national politics.
Plainly, the annual Congress opening is now political theater at its most phony, endlessly punctuated by prompted applause.
This used to be an event where presidents and speechwriters could flash their oratory and rhetorical craft. But nowadays, no words soar. No ideas disrupt our train of thought.
It’s fair to ask why Aquino opts to speak in Filipino on this occasion. I believe it is to avoid being forced to organize his ideas and points in the speech.
3. Aquino’s first SONA fathered the DAP
The local practice of an incoming president delivering a SONA at the start of his term, which is during the final year of his predecessor’s is incomprehensible. Strictly speaking, the incoming president, if he is wise, should confine himself to the articulation of his vision and program of government.
This was the tack followed by President Fidel V. Ramos in his first address to Congress in July 1992. He did not undertake a review of the final year of Cory Aquino’s presidency.
Doing a critique of the predecessor is bad form.
This was the mishap that befell President BS Aquino’s first message to Congress in July 2010.
It should now be revealed that the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) had its origins in incompetent decisions regarding that first SONA.
In what follows, I got my information mainly from the excellent analysis and critique by BenignO, the webmaster of getrealphilippines.com. He wrote:
“Indeed, it is too bad for the administration of Philippine President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III that their brainchild, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), has been deemed unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court. The DAP was conceived following a disastrous economic result in 2011 when the Philippine economy grew by only a little bit more than 3 percent after more than 7 percent growth rates in previous years.
“Economic experts have attributed the growth rate crash of 2011 to then presidential newbie BS Aquino’s short-sighted and spiteful canning of many public projects initiated during the term of his predecessor former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The drying up of public funding created a ripple effect across both upstream and downstream economic activity that depressed commercial activity and flattened economic growth almost below annual population growth rates.
“As the words in the DAP imply: disbursement acceleration. President BS Aquino was desperate to accelerate government spending after that economic disaster of his own doing. His foolish decisions to drastically cut spending in 2011 was a result of an appallingly uninformed take on the Philippines’ fiscal position when he first took office in 2010, when he foolishly failed to differentiate the concept of budget and actual expenditure. Evidence of this infantile grasp of fiscal management was his use of the nonsensical notion of a ‘depleted budget’ in the hysterical first State of the Nation Address (SONA) he delivered to Congress on that year (translated in English from President BS Aquino’s Tagalog speech)…
[Quotation from Aquino 2010 SONA begins]
“ ‘Our budget for 2010 is PhP1.54 trillion. Of this, only PhP100 billion—or 6.5 percent of the total budget—can be used for the remaining six months of the current year. Roughly 1% of the total budget is left for each of the remaining month.
Where did the funds go?’ “
[Quotation from Aquino SONA ends and BenignO article resumes.]
“Hello, anybody in there?? Think McFly, THINK!
“In accounting there are many concepts that describe outgoing funds, and just as many words articulate these concepts: spent, disbursed, appropriated, accrued, allocated, provisioned, etc. Choosing the right word to use among those examples basically comes down to deciding whether funds referred to were set aside or moved from one account to another. A ‘budget’ does not necessarily imply the existence of actual money. A budget is planned expenditure, and as such, the concept of a depleted budget does not make sense. We may exceed a budget, but to say it’s been ‘depleted’ is to state an oxymoron; which is exactly the way P.Noy stated it in his SONA.
“The amount of funds, say cash, in an account, say a bank account, on the other hand, represents something that could be depleted—both in principle, in practice, and in a real sense. Perhaps if the President made specific reference to an actual statement of account and made use of more precise accounting terms, then his 2010 SONA and the decisions he made following it would have made better sense. Following that presidential gaffe, Albay Representative Edcel Lagman did exactly that in a statement challenging P.Noy’s accounting acumen (or that of his handlers). Lagman makes use of precise words on the matter, in the way that a more informed person would.
“Quoting the Bureau of Treasury, Lagman said ‘the total cash disbursement or the national government expenditures as of June 30, 2010 amounted to close to P789 billion. This means that close to P752 billion pesos or 48 percent of the budget remains unspent, he said.
“ ‘The problem in the President’s accounting must have been caused by a lack of understanding of the difference between allocation as covered by a Special Allotment Release Order and actual disbursement to pay accrued or matured obligations,’ Lagman said.” [End of long quotation from BenignO in getrealphilippines,com]
4. Roads from Manila to Hollywood
The many errors of fact and thought in Aquino’s SONAs since 2010 could have been avoided had he availed himself of the services of a fact checker, and better Cabinet members and writers.
His claim last Monday that his Administration has built 12,000 kilometers of roads is spectacularly flagrant. It is being hammered and ridiculed on social media.
Aquino got this information from his DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson. DPWH claims that it has built 12,184 kms of roads during the term of BS Aquino.
If this were true, say the online bloggers, it would mean that the Aquino government had built roads that could stretch all the way from Manila to Hollywood, and from Manila to Paris.
The distance between Manila and Hollywood (Los Angeles) is 11,747 kms, and between Manila and Paris, 10,747 kms.
For his final appearance at the opening of a regular session of Congress (which should be July 2015), Aquino should deliver his valedictory. All he has to really say is one word: “Goodbye.”
He can heave a sigh of relief. And we the nation can heave a sigh of relief, too.