Former President, and, since July of the year that’s about to end, Speaker of the House of Representatives Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was generous in her praise for her accomplices during her speech last Wednesday when the aptly-named Lower House adjourned for the Christmas break.
As of December 11, Arroyo crowed, “the House can report with confidence that we have already passed the President’s entire legislative agenda as he announced it in his 2018 State of the Nation Address.”
A press release from her office mentioned the House’s passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the Security of Tenure Act, the National Land Use Act, and the creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience, among other “accomplishments.” But it did not mention the hasty approval on third and final reading of the House majority’s resolution urging adoption of its draft of a Constitution that among other problematic traits abolishes the anti-dynasty and term limit provisions in the 1987 Charter it is intended to replace.
“Under Arroyo,” her press release nevertheless continued, “the House processed 1,361 bills, and approved 492 measures, of which 95 have been passed into law.”
What the House has succeeded in doing, however, isn’t as outstanding as what it failed to do — pass the 2019 General Appropriations Bill so the Senate could examine and discuss it.
Without a budget approved by both chambers of Congress for the coming year, the government will have to use the 2018 budget to continue operating. This will still require Congressional action in early January 2019 via a reenacted allocation, which, however, binds the government to the programs of 2018.
The last time the government operated under a reenacted budget was in 2010, but during the last three years of Arroyo as President, in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Congress also failed to pass a budget before it adjourned at year’s end.
As if to remind everyone of that far from exemplary record, while declaring that the Speakership is “a position I do not take lightly,” Arroyo also described her “leadership and management style as Speaker” as similar to when she was President.
The House failure to pass the budget can indeed be attributed to her far from unique leadership and management style, which can only be charitably described as similarly self-serving as that of her predecessors’.
The 2019 budget failed to pass because of Arroyo and her House allies’ more than obvious attempts to secure other posts for themselves once their terms in Congress end in May next year.
Making full use of her background in economics, Arroyo had summoned the Duterte economic managers in October and in a thinly-veiled criticism of the way they have been running the economy, as well as to earn brownie points among the populace, urged them to adapt several measures that she claimed would lower the inflation rate. In an unmistakable rebuke to her “I know better” presumption, her suggestions were not taken seriously, and none have been adopted by the government.
What ensued next only served to validate rumors of a House-Malacanang break. The Arroyo House leadership claimed that there were PhP52 billion worth of pork barrel “insertions” in the 2019 proposed budget, and that Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Benjamin Diokno was primarily responsible for it.
Duterte ally Senator Panfilo Lacson countered with allegations that it was Arroyo and her House cohort who had “inserted” billions of pesos in pork barrel in the budget. Malacanang quickly demanded that Arroyo explain the PhP2.4 billion in pork she had allegedly inserted in the budget for the supposed benefit of her district. Congressman Rolando Andaya, who was Arroyo DBM Secretary when she was President and her other House allies denied Lacson’s allegations.
The dispute dragged on with claims and counterclaims being hurled at each other by the House and Malacanang. The long and the short of it is a repeat of what happened during Arroyo’s last years as President, when factional disputes and endless bickering over who should get how much in pork and perks led to successive budget reenactments, with the General Appropriations Act’s being passed only in the first quarter of the year.
The present impasse, however, has been further complicated by Arroyo and company’s apparent focus on assuring themselves of a reasonably secure and profitable future after May, 2019, when Arroyo and Andaya can no longer run for another term.
Was the House demand that President Duterte fire Diokno meant to pressure him into naming Andaya to that post? Even more to the point, is PhD. in Economics degree-holder Arroyo eyeing the post of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, or that of National Economic and Development Authority Director-General Ernesto Pernia, thus her pointedly successful attempts to call attention to the failure of the Duterte regime to curb inflation? Or is she aiming for a more powerful post such as that of “Little President,” the Executive Secretary?
What makes these suspicions credible is, among others, Arroyo’s unexpected coup against Alvarez, which took even Mr. Duterte by surprise last July. That alone suggests that she’s not about to withdraw from public life. But Arroyo has also been suspected of eying the prime ministership in the event that the country adopts the parliamentary system, or the Presidency should a federal form of government come to pass, when, depending upon the transitory provisions of the Constitution that will implement it, she could run for another term.
What all these suggest is that Arroyo and company seem to be laying out a smorgasbord of options for their continued dominance in government rather than fading away in retirement.
Because she has been President, few expected, and many were surprised and even shocked, when Arroyo ran for Congress in 2009. She did win as Representative of the Second District of her home province of Pampanga, in which post many thought she would shun controversy while awaiting retirement from government. Her July coup, achieved with the connivance of Sara Duterte and Imee Marcos, relieved them of that illusion.
To most people, being Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, and then Senator, Vice President, President, Congresswoman, and Speaker would be more than enough rewards for a lifetime. But neither Arroyo nor her fellow bureaucrat capitalists are “most people.” They are neither like you and me in their lusts and ambitions, nor a majority, they being only a handful among the teeming millions of this archipelago.
Consider another example of the differences between the many and the few in this land of inequity, that of Joseph Estrada.
Himself a former President and having been a Senator as Arroyo was, as well as San Juan Mayor earlier, and Vice-President of the Philippines, Estrada again ran for President in 2010 after his pardon for plunder in 2007, and then ran for Mayor of Manila in 2013, a post that he won and will still contest in 2019.
A government post apparently has its attractions beyond its official remuneration benefits, and access to public funds. But Arroyo, Estrada and several others’ (Juan Ponce Enrile also comes to mind) running for and continuing election, and/or appointment to public office, reveal not only how short the memory of Filipino voters is, but also how narrow is their field of choice in who can best govern them.
It’s a function of the limited democracy that for decades has passed for majority rule, and which masks the reality of oligarchic dominance in Philippine politics and governance. Expect Arroyo and company to be, like Mr. Duterte’s chosen few, recycled into functionaries in some other equally powerful, equally lucrative posts in government in 2019. It’s not quite right to say they will return to government, because they’ve never left it.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from NEDA’s Good Governance website.