Fun, but not funny

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile played Santa Claus last Christmas and gave each of 22 senators P1.6 million as “gifts.” But as more recent reports have it, the distribution of generous holiday bonuses has been a common practice not only in the Senate but also in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers have been playing Santa Claus to themselves in the true “trapo” tradition of self-reward, -congratulation, -aggrandizement, and -interest.

Ever the master politician and legal pundit, Enrile is unflappable in defending himself against an unnamed Senate colleague who had spilled the beans and called the bonuses “unconscionable and unconstitutional.” The bonuses come under the euphemism “maintenance and other operating expenses” or MOOE. Enrile said he had been giving additional MOOE at yearend since he became Senate president in 2008, and indicated that it was an old practice. In 2008, for example, he released for each senator P1 million as a second tranche to the P500,000 earlier released by his predecessor, Manuel Villar. Other MOOEs: P1 million each in 2009; two tranches—P1.316 million and P318,000—in 2010; and three tranches—P500,000, P1.3 million and P318,000—in 2011. “All the senators, including those now complaining or calling it ‘unconscionable’ and ‘unconstitutional’ received these amounts,” he said. “Yet they never said anything or questioned it before.”

Of course, someone leaked the bonuses to the media because, first, these were supposed to buy Enrile favor among his colleagues so he could retain the Senate presidency, his hold on which has become increasingly tenuous, and, second, because the distribution of the gifts was unequal. Four senators with whom Enrile is at odds each received “only” P250,000. One of them, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago admitted receipt of the money (“inadvertently” by her staff, she was quick to point out), but said she had returned it.

Enrile said the money was a gift, not a bribe. As for his refusal to give P1.6 million to Santiago and three other senators—the siblings Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV—he invoked the exercise of his discretion. He also said the senators who thought he was bribing them “must have a very low opinion of their own colleagues.” He issued the reminder that he was elected Senate President twice and added for good measure: “I did not buy this position. Not one single centavo of the people’s money is spent just to enable me to cling to this office.”

In short, everything’s legal. But is it moral? Or if that sounds melodramatic, is it really not the people’s money? The bonuses supposedly came from the budget of the Senate seat left vacant by President Aquino and from the savings of the chamber. Obviously, Enrile had the savings distributed as bonuses not only to the senators but to the Senate staff and employees as well so that the money would not revert to the general fund. For all intents and purposes, that’s the people’s money.

Those who were given smaller sums may complain of the giver’s vindictiveness, but as the distribution would show, the sums also benefited their committees, whose expenses would be at their discretion. They may nurse wounds they incurred as a result of Enrile’s pique, but they should also consider the wider picture—that the bonuses, because entirely discretionary, are also arbitrary and made at the people’s expense. Also arbitrary is the funding of the committees that they continue to chair despite some of them moving over to the minority. In some instances, the budgets have been increased. Where’s the science to all of this, let alone the transparent and democratic rationale?

It’s not much different in the House, where each representative received P500,000 before the Christmas break, which means P141.5 million of the people’s money went to these lawmakers who each have a pork barrel of at least P65 million to be spent also largely at their discretion.

All of this brings us back to the time of Jose de Venecia (and his “rainbow coalition”), and before him, Ramon Mitra, Speakers who dispensed great sums at their disposal as political largesse. Has nothing changed? Despite the oft-repeated pledge of new politics, old habits remain, pernicious as ever.

Oh, but Santiago has said that many politicians are dying to become senators because “it’s more fun in the Senate.” Not only is it more fun in that chamber, we should add, but there are more funds there—people’s money!—that senators can spend at their whim.

Fun, yes, but not funny.

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Tags: Bribe , cash gifts to senators , editorial , gift , Juan Ponce Enrile , legal , moral , senate savings

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