An oversight?

The cash gifts controversy enveloping the Senate has forced it to take a long hard look at its practices. The recent harsh exchange of words on the Senate floor between Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano may have dragged the chamber’s reputation through the gutter, but if the flurry of acts and statements from various senators in the last several days is any guide, we may yet look forward to not only a cleaned-up Senate, but a clean slate.

Let us not delude ourselves; the hole the Senate has dug itself into is deep and wide. If current practices in spending office savings and accounting for expenses are prone to abuse and corruption, the solution lies not only in tightening procedures and instituting more safeguards, but in investigating whether there were in fact instances of abuse and corruption.

While it is possible to disagree with Cayetano’s populist idea to subject the Senate to a “people’s audit” (what’s wrong with the Commission on Audit?), we find it difficult to imagine anyone (except perhaps for certain senators) disagreeing with his demand: “We cannot sweep this under the rug.”

That there has been a doubling in the funds allotted for the MOOE of oversight committees since 2010, from P212 million in 2010 to over P442 million in 2012, is certainly troubling. Enrile, Senate accounts committee chair Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Senators Franklin Drilon and Aquilino Pimentel III are among the senators who have recently come forward to say that some form of resolute action must be taken to address the problem of inefficient, cost-ineffective, overstaying or bloated oversight committees—even though with three session days left in the 15th Congress the needed legislation will have to be the work of the 16th.

What are oversight committees? These are ad hoc or statutory creations meant to discharge the legislature’s power to oversee or review the actions of the executive branch.

Of the 35 “ad hoc” committees listed in the Senate’s own website, we find a wide range, from the highly specific (such as the Oversight Committee on the ARMM Organic Act, chaired by Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr.) to the broadly defined (such as the Special Oversight Committee on Economic Affairs, under Sen. Manny Villar, or the Oversight Committee on Climate Change, under Sen. Loren Legarda).

Each one was created either by Senate resolution or by a specific law.

But the Senate has 39 permanent committees, and many of them overlap with the oversight committees. So there is, for example, a Committee on Labor, Employment & Human Resource Development, chaired by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, and a Congressional Oversight Committee on Labor and Employment, also chaired by Estrada. What justifies the P17.5-million MOOE budget allotted for the second committee? Is it possible to “fold” the functions of the second into the first?

What is the difference between Legarda’s Oversight Committee on Climate Change (with its P5.3-million MOOE budget), and her permanent Committee on Climate Change?

At a meeting with the chair of COA last week, both the Senate and the House of Representatives agreed to stop the practice of so-called liquidation by certification. This, Cayetano admitted, was “a good first step.”

Under the old arrangement, millions of pesos in MOOE funds were deemed liquidated or properly accounted for on the mere say-so of a lawmaker. Not a single lawmaker has defended this practice (although many must have taken advantage of it), because, really, it is indefensible. A system which does not require official receipts or any other proof of expense is vulnerable to corruption.

But much more needs to be done.

The case for reviewing the status of each ad hoc or oversight committee and for reducing their number, and for instituting tighter measures on spending and accounting, seems hard to refute. But politics being the art of compromise, and because change is always a difficult undertaking, the push for reform must be coupled with public pressure on both the Senate and the House of Representatives. We the people have our own oversight powers too.

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Tags: Alan Peter Cayetano , Government , Graft and Corruption , Juan Ponce Enrile , Senate , Senate Funds , Senate Oversight Committees , State Budget

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