Public funds for private perks?
While most Filipinos struggle to cope with skyrocketing prices brought about by a record-setting 8.7 percent inflation rate, four senators are seeking additional benefits for former presidents using public funds.
Senators Christopher “Bong” Go, Mark Villar, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, and Francis Tolentino, all allies of former president Rodrigo Duterte, have filed Senate Bill No. 1784, or the Former Presidents Benefits Act of 2023, proposing funds for the former heads of state “to employ the services of personal staff and maintain private offices.”
“Despite the end of their term, they are also expected to perform post-presidential duties such as meeting with foreign and local dignitaries, and attending public events and other social engagements,” the explanatory note read.
If passed, former chief executives can choose the head of their own security detail, while their immediate family will also be provided security protection during the ex-leader’s lifetime.
Sen. Robinhood Padilla, who supports the bill, has also proposed that former presidents be “automatically made presidential advisers, [with] the sitting President [deciding to] which area they can contribute.” Mr. Duterte can be made an adviser on “law enforcement or on foreign relations,’’ Padilla added of the former leader who is being investigated for extrajudicial killings by the International Criminal Court.
Several laws provide certain privileges to former Philippine presidents, including Republic Act No. 5059, which was updated by then President Corazon Aquino to increase their yearly pension from P40,000 in 1967, to P96,000. Former heads of state are also given an officer-led security detail provided by the Presidential Security Group and a diplomatic passport, and allowed free stamps for their correspondence. They are met by Philippine Embassy officials abroad when they travel, and accorded certain courtesies by the country they are visiting.
Their current salary of P411,382 to P423,723 a month for their six-year term would have provided them enough savings to enjoy a comfortable life after leaving office. Along with two other living former presidents—Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada—Mr. Duterte also comes from a wealthy clan, part of the reason why these former leaders and some of their family members have managed to win elections through generations. In fact, two of them ran for lower office after their term, with Arroyo now an incumbent Pampanga representative, while Estrada lost his reelection bid in Manila’s 2019 mayoral race. By any lens, these former leaders have remained a privileged lot even without the proposed bill.
So it is the height of bad taste and ill timing, to say the least, not to mention a shameless payback of political debts, to consider the plight of former presidents as “pitiful,” as Go had described it. Why coddle those who were once the most powerful and among the wealthiest figures in the land, while turning a blind eye to the hardscrabble lot of millions of ordinary Filipinos?
Underscoring the esteemed lawmakers’ insensitivity is their proposal to source the funds needed for the additional perks and privileges from the Department of Budget and Management for inclusion in the national budget. Yes, from the same agency that cannot seem to find enough funds to give health workers their much-delayed pandemic allowances, nor public school teachers the decent salary promised them.
As well, wouldn’t the millions of pesos for “post-presidential duties” find better use building enough cold storage facilities for farmers that would allow their crops a longer shelf life, instead of forcing them to sell their harvest to unscrupulous middlemen at giveaway prices rather than see them rot? Why not propose instead a decent subsidy for fertilizer and other farm inputs for farmers, whose desperate straits have driven some of them to suicide?
The funds to “honor former Presidents of the Republic” would also go a long way if used to restore the “unconscionable” cuts in pandemic-related cash aid for poor families in the national budget, considering the 4.3 percent increase in unemployment rate as of December 2022, and the lingering effects of the pandemic.
For sure, former presidents might occasionally be invited to deliver speeches in local and international gatherings, for which the sponsoring firm takes care of the honoraria and other incidental expenses. As private citizens, it is only appropriate that former heads of state look to private donors instead of depending on public funds to support what may now be arguably considered as private endeavors. Former president Fidel V. Ramos, for one, established a foundation for such undertaking, an initiative that the four honorable authors of the bill might kick start for their patron by donating part of their salaries.
Public office, after all, is a public trust, and these senators must realize that private citizens, including former presidents, should no longer profit from it.
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