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The avoidable crisis

opinion / Editorial
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Editorial

The avoidable crisis

/ 12:10 AM January 20, 2016

The controversy over the proposed increase in Social Security System pensions and President Aquino’s veto of it is a classic case of the avoidable crisis. Why the President failed to avoid it is the real story.

Yes, the President was only being prudent when he vetoed the bill. Yes, the argument from potential bankruptcy is a potent one (contrary to the line of reasoning that holds that bankruptcy is a threat only if the SSS does nothing in the meantime). Even Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who cast the only “no” vote when the Senate passed the bill, warned against bankrupting the SSS. And yes, the numbers don’t add up. A P2,000 increase in the pensions of some two million pensioners would cost about P56 billion a year, but the SSS earns only between P30 billion and P40 billion annually.

So the veto makes sense. What doesn’t is the set of circumstances that Malacañang allowed to happen, leading to the veto.

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The Senate passed the bill only last November, with 15 senators voting in favor. The bill’s principal sponsor was Sen. Cynthia Villar, administration ally and chair of the committee on government corporations and public enterprise. “Given the rising cost of living, it is high time we [gave] our retirees and their family a monthly pension that will allow them to at least live with dignity,” she said.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, one of the President’s principal allies, welcomed the passage with effusive words, calling it “an early Christmas gift of the Senate to SSS pensioners.”

The original bill in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares, among others, could not have passed the chamber without the support of enough members of the ruling coalition, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, another principal ally of the President’s.

In the wake of the President’s veto, Belmonte pointed out that the Senate had failed to pass a companion bill—“a sister bill”—allowing an increase in premiums. “[The President] had no choice as SSS could not afford it from an actuarial point of view,” he said. “The House passed a sister bill giving the SSS board powers similar to that of the GSIS (Government Service Insurance System) Board to increase premiums, but it was not yet approved by the Senate.”

In other words: The President lost control of the legislative process. Why this happened should be the focus of inquiry.

Mr. Aquino’s laid-back approach to working with members of Congress has been obscured by his administration’s signal record in securing the early passage of the national budget six years in a row, and by signature triumphs like the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act. But it is clear that he sees no need for coordinating or collaborative mechanisms like the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council; he sees no hurry in filling the vacancy in the position of the presidential adviser on legislative affairs; and he sees himself, as the Executive, playing a passive role in the work of legislation, preferring to leave matters to his principal allies.

Did no one among the President’s advisers see the pension bill coming out of the legislative mill? Did no one in the President’s inner circle advise him to send an unmistakable veto threat to the sponsors in the Senate? Did no one among the President’s lawyers or advisers counsel him to head off the coming conflict—either through preemptive information campaigns, or consultations with key lawmakers, or candid confrontations with his two principal allies?

That the President was seen to have vetoed the pension hike out of nowhere is a gauge of the administration’s lack of leadership—not a lack of leadership on the issue of pensions, but a lack of leadership per se. We do not agree with the notion that Mr. Aquino is cruel or heartless; that is too easy a label to pin on someone, too convenient for facts. But this much can be said: Mr. Aquino failed to exercise leadership, before the issue became a most avoidable crisis.

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TAGS: pension, pension increase, Social Security System, SSS
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