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‘Law of the stomach’ as tradition

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“It is honored by tradition,” Sen. Edgardo Angara stressed. He meant Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s “Christmas cash gifts” of P1.6 million each to 18 “friendly” senators, including Angara. At year’s end, Enrile ladled “maintenance and other operating expenses” (MOOE) savings. Why did it ignite today’s brawl?

“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer,” Somerset Maugham cautions. So what is this customary practice that all-too-willing legislators swear by yet left some fuming? Enrile doled P250,000 of our tax money, as “Christmas cash gift,” each to Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Antonio Trillanes, Pia Cayetano and Alan Peter Cayetano. They protested “uneven” distribution of the cash, Angara said. Would everyone have zippered their lips if traditional slabs were sliced equally?

“Tradition teaches one how to act, pray and work,” sings Tevye in the 1964 Broadway play “Fiddler on the Roof.” “And where did tradition come from? I will tell you …. Ah, ah, ah. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And without tradition, our lives are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Between 1981 and 1987, Angara was Senate president. Did he ring in new years by fiddling with MOOE at quarter of midnight in the old year? “I must have,” he allowed. “But I don’t recall.” He wasn’t aware his office received a gift-wrapped P1.6-million MOOE. Really? “MOOE is used for day-to-day expenses, like office supplies, rentals, electricity and coffee for guests,” he said.

Is Senate coffee like Pagcor brew? President Aquino revealed that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. billed taxpayers P1,007,408,908, for brewing 10 million cups of coffee from 2001 to 2010. The number of ill-fed underweight children increased to 3.3 million in that period. “I  like my coffee strong, not lethal!” cracks the army doctor in Ring Lardner’s satirical movie “MASH.”

In a Radyo Inquirer interview, Senator Santiago revealed  she lobbed the check back to Enrile. She skewered  parceling  additional MOOE in December. “All official transactions of the Senate are completed by then.”

Is it “tradition to scrimp during the year, then splurge at yearend?” TV’s Karen Davila persisted. “That’s my point!” snapped the senator who busted an eye blood vessel apparently during the interview. “So that on Christmas you can give yourselves and your colleagues the savings to keep them quiet? … What does ‘public purposes’ mean? That you give a senator a cash gift of P2 million? That senator will lie and produce a paper saying the money was for public purpose but actually pocketed it … This ‘racket’ is practiced in the Senate.”

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it,” Mark Twain notes. The gap of doles, between those who curtsy to Enrile and those who refuse, stinks. Ordinary employees, in contrast, are dunned for getting bonuses in excess of the P10,000 maximum allowable.

But the core scandal festers at a deeper level. Through budget law provisions they crafted, legislators authorize themselves to realign and feather their nests. MWSS officials gave themselves bonuses equivalent to 26 months’ salary. That’s theft. When senators gorge on MOOE, that’s “tradition”?

When Ferdinand Marcos entered Malacañang, there were 37 government-owned and -controlled corporations (GOCCs). These ballooned to 303 before People Power toppled the Marcos dictatorship. GOCC profligacy burned 28 centavos out of every tax peso. Most operated as fiefdoms. Social Security System officials feathered their nests with stock options.

President Corazon Aquino pruned the number of GOCCs back to 157. Cory Aquino’s son took the second step to curb corporate plunder. On June 6, 2011, President Noynoy Aquino signed the GOCC Governance Act. Sen. Franklin Drilon shepherded Senate Bill No. 2640 into Republic Act No. 10149. The new law creates in effect a Securities and Exchange Commission for the GOCCs.

Today, five commissioners oversee the GOCCs worth P5 trillion—more than double the P2.87 trillion for the rest of government. Their subsidies ballooned from P9.064 billion in 2000 to P53.705 billion in 2011. That straddles President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s tenure. Gloria who?

“There has been a paradigm shift,” notes former Philippine Stock Exchange president Francis Lim. “The GOCC Act is the first best thing that happened to our GOCC system under the current administration … The next best thing … is that the President chose the right persons as commissioners.” In the first 200 days, the commission documented reforms from operating manuals for GOCCs to rulings on nearly 60 bids for per diem entitlements, Lim also points out.

“There’s one very big rub,” Inquirer’s Conrad de Quiros notes. Immoral, unjust, obscene midnight realignments are also perfectly legal. Legislators wrote into the law that they may distribute among themselves amounts from their savings—as they please. “Someone like Enrile decides to play Santa Claus with your money, you can’t fight it legally, short of fighting to amend, or scrap, the law itself,” De Quiros stresses.

Massive corruption is sanctioned by self-serving laws. Embedded by long practice, it calcified into tradition. Fraud sanctified by tradition remains fraud. Our parents had an apt word for such edicts: “Ley del estomago.” The law of the stomach. This has resulted in 45 percent of kids dying before reaching the age of five. Taxpayers must stomp on Congress’ structured plunder. “Tradition without intelligence is not worth having,” T.S. Eliot writes.

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E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com


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