The latest controversy over the possible misuse of government funds, this time involving the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund or Acef, offers yet more proof that politics may be the country’s most lucrative business. Whether Edgardo Angara, then the senator in charge of the Senate agriculture committee in the 14th Congress, or Abraham Mitra, Angara’s counterpart in the House of Representatives at that time, broke the law in facilitating some P410 million in Acef grants to their respective provinces, the underlying reality is stark: They were engaged in a form of political entrepreneurship.
Through their positions, they were able to tap a billion-peso fund in ways that directly benefited their bailiwicks. So, some politicians may ask, what is wrong with that? Aren’t lawmakers duty-bound, under the principle of agency, to work for their constituents’ interests?
Both Angara and Mitra have denied any wrongdoing. “The three projects that the P300-million Acef disbursement funded belie any and all insinuations that I personally benefited from the funds,” Angara said in a statement. He itemized the three projects in Aurora province thus: P200 million as initial budget for the 120-kilometer Baler-Casiguran Road, and P100 million as funding for the Aurora Mariculture Park and a Coconut-Based Products Complex, all in 2008.
Palawan, which Mitra used to represent, used Acef monies to construct a P10.2-million abaca farm in 2008 and to allocate P100 million for the eradication of mango pests in 2009. Mitra said that though he and Angara had coauthored the extension of the Acef Law, they were not responsible for implementing it. “Our roles were just ministerial.”
We’ve heard this excuse, or rationalization, before. It is exactly the reasoning offered by the three senators implicated in the plunder of the Priority Development Assistance Fund. (Angara has also been implicated in the so-called pork barrel scam, but because the total amount he was supposed to have redirected is less than P50 million, he has been accused of graft, not plunder.) The most powerful politicians in the country have nothing to do with the siphoning off of PDAF allocations to fake organizations or fake beneficiaries because their role, in Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s words, was “clearly recommendatory.” Implementation, Estrada has argued, “is best left to the motivated and the willing.”
To be fair to both Mitra and Angara, there is as yet no showing that their use of Acef funds is of the same nature or scope of the pork barrel scam. But the possibility of misuse exists. The Acef was set up in 1996 to prepare farmers and fishermen affected by trade liberalization policies, by funding such necessities as irrigation projects and farm-to-market roads. Does the Baler-Casiguran Road qualify as one such? Between 2011 and 2012, the Department of Agriculture suspended the Acef for largely failing to reach its intended beneficiaries: farmers and fishermen. Unless, of course, the farmers and fishermen are the lucky constituents of influential politicians with their hands on the levers of power.
How else explain the privileged status of Aurora and Palawan in 2008 and 2009? Were the agricultural communities in these provinces more motivated, more willing, than others? The simpler answer tells us it was precisely their positions that allowed Angara and Mitra to steer the P410-million largesse in their bailiwicks’ direction. (The Aurora Pacific Economic and Freeport Zone is another, controversial, example of Angara’s remarkable powers of persuasion.)
The myth of “ministerial” responsibilities, then, is exactly that: a myth. Compound this political reality with bureaucratic inertia, and we have a system where political advantage becomes economic capital. Bohol Rep. Arthur Yap, then the agriculture secretary, told the Inquirer he had done all he could to keep Acef on a professional footing. “This is why we insisted that the companies apply with the Landbank, which we assumed did its work of assessing the borrower’s capacity to pay.” On such blithe assumptions are local political fortunes made, and national development undermined.
We are reminded of that infamous utterance of Senate President Jose Avelino, said on Jan. 15, 1949, during a harangue aimed at President Elpidio Quirino: “What are we in power for?”