The “anti-epal” bill is a bill everyone can get behind. Even its very nickname speaks of its populist origins. “Epal,” after all is Filipino slang referring to people who aim to grab attention that isn’t rightfully theirs, shorthand for interlopers, usurpers and just plain awful scene-stealers.
Authored by Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the bill is formally known as “An Act Prohibiting Public Officers from Claiming Credit through Signage Announcing a Public Works Project,” but it is now better known by its catchy nickname: anti-epal bill.
What the bill specifically deals with are those huge billboards lining thoroughfares all over the country, billboards that bear the smiling visage of public officials claiming that, for example, “this road was built courtesy of (put public official’s name here).” Even worse are those billboards practicing the art of misdirection as they claim to be thanking certain officials for putting up the projects, as if it was the public who thought of putting up the signs. Anyone who has spent hours trapped in traffic while looking up at these roadside monstrosities knows the true meaning of road rage.
The shocking thing is just how many of these billboards are out there, and how many public officials engage in this brand of political gamesmanship. In many ways, it has become electoral standard operating procedure to loudly and blithely claim credit for public works projects by claiming everybody else does it.
Santiago herself explains it in the bill’s explanatory note: “It is a prevalent practice among public officers, whether elected or appointed, to append their names to public works projects which were either funded or facilitated through their office.”
The problem is that the billboards are utter lies. The roads, bridges and whatever projects these signs are attached to would have been built with or without that politician claiming them as his or her own. The constituents pay for the projects through their taxes and the Department of Public Works and Highways or another government agency builds them. The bill is fine with the agencies putting up billboards announcing these projects, but it bans outright any individual official, no matter how high or how low the rank, trying to attach their names to these public endeavors.
It’s a matter of giving credit where it is due. The bill outlaws those practices because, according to Santiago, such action “diminishes the importance that the public needs to place on supporting government officials, not because of their popularity, but because of their essential role in policy determination, whether on the local or national level.”
Santiago is not taking prisoners either. The bill, if passed into law, would require a prison term of between six months and a year, for any official attaching his/her image to “signage announcing a proposed or ongoing public works project.”
The bill will not waste time, either. Should it be passed, the DPWH, the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority will have only three months to take down any such billboards or signs – hopefully never to have to do it again.
The fascinating turn of events is how the anti-epal bill has been embraced by different sectors. Now in committee deliberations, the bill is being welcomed by Santiago’s colleagues and should be discussed in session by January. “There’s no doubt about it,” said Majority Leader Sen. Vicente Sotto III, “it will be passed. It’s a good bill and I think majority, if not all, of the senators would support it.” With local and national elections coming sooner rather than later, its passage would be most welcome.
Beyond the Senate, the bill has been hailed by civil society and by the public in general. Social networks reveal how the anti-epal bill is trending strongly, mentioned in blogs and other media sites. What this reveals is that not only does the public see the importance of the bill but also that the bill has emerged from the zeitgeist and captured the Filipino imagination.
The anti-epal bill is something we want, a bill we need and a bill that should see widespread application on the local and national level, wherever attention-grabbing politicians rear their ugly heads. It is time for this bill to pass, to identify all those politicians guilty of credit grabbing. It is time to take them all down.