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There’s the Rub

State of the nation

A judge who is the uncle of the accused presides over his trial and ends up exonerating him. If that happens, will your first instinct be to want to go over the trial and see if he was less than fair in conducting it?

Not at all. Your first instinct will be to rail against his being the judge at the trial. It is simply not done. The judge may be the paragon of impartiality and probity, but it doesn’t matter. People who are related to the parties in a case inhibit themselves from it as a matter of course. It is conflict of interest, it is illegal, it is taboo.

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This analogy leaped to mind when I read about Malacañang demanding that the senators explain how they spent their DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) funds. That was what Edwin Lacierda said, to assure the public that everything was on the up and up. “The use of the DAP funds was meant to primarily help the constituents, the countrymen.”

But just to be sure, says Leila de Lima, the National Bureau of Investigation is looking into Benhur Luy’s allegation that several senators coursed their DAP funds to Janet Napoles’ NGOs. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales says she will form a panel of field investigators to look into the budget realignments made by government under the DAP.

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That is all very well, but it misses the point. The point is that government had no right to release those funds and the senators to receive them. Whether the DAP was meant “to primarily help the constituents, the countrymen,” or not, it had no business being there. Giving the President the power to juggle funds is unconstitutional. It is illegal. That’s what the Supreme Court ruling means.

All the worse for the senators if they misused the money or, as Luy alleges, if they coursed it to Napoles’ NGOs. But the fact itself that they took the money was wrong. Sen. Miriam Santiago got that right: They should return it, they had no business having it. If they misspent it, well, then, they should go to jail. Just like the three senators who are there now.

Is this cause to impeach the President?

As “can” goes, it is of course next to impossible. P-Noy has the numbers in Congress, far more than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did when she got hit by a couple of impeachment complaints during her time. And for reasons that go beyond the transactional: P-Noy continues to enjoy high trust ratings among the lawmakers. It certainly does not help that the fellow who has filed the complaint against him is former congressman Augusto Syjuco, who does not. He was part of the rogues’ gallery that the President lined up last year in his State of the Nation Address, painting him before the world in the most unsavory terms. Syjuco’s 20 other companions in his complaint read like a Band of Adders.

As “should” goes, that’s another matter entirely. Ex-national treasurer and Social Watch head Liling Briones, for one, believes P-Noy is at least “vulnerable” to it. He went out of his way to defend the DAP late last year, she said, trying to differentiate it from the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund), when it was in fact the same dog with a new collar. It allowed the President to give lump-sum appropriations to the lawmakers from “savings” pooled by the budget department. Of course, she allowed, “the President [could not be expected] to know the constitutionality of every item in the budget, he could only be acting on the advice of his Cabinet members or advisers,” but the vulnerability is there.

I myself do not see the need or desirability for it. P-Noy’s transgression is not of the order that strikes at the core of the presidency itself. More than being corrupt, Erap betrayed the public trust, which the prosecutors argued very well in his impeachment trial. And more than corruption, Arroyo showed rottenness to the core when she helloed Garci, which was the subject of her impeachment complaints. Those are not lapses in judgment, those are presidency-voiding monstrosities.

All this is quite apart from the fact that an impeachment overlooks the scale of the P-Noy administration’s accomplishments, which are patent even to his critics. P-Noy deserves remonstration, not impeachment.

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But since that won’t happen anyway, the question is: What now?

The next weeks leading up to the Sona will be critical, not in terms of whether government will survive or not, but in terms of whether government will survive well or badly.

Something from nearly two decades ago hints at how things can go. In 1995, Fidel Ramos got hit by the worst crisis of his presidency. From out of the blue came Singapore’s impending execution of Flor Contemplacion. Despite government’s desperate efforts to save her, and despite the country lapsing into prayer mode, Singapore executed her anyway. The backlash—not least on government—was awesome.

Government’s responsibility for what happened was merely tangential, but it bore the brunt of the brickbats anyway. What probably saved it from a fate worse than death was two of its major officials—Roberto Romulo, the foreign secretary, and Nieves Confesor, the labor secretary—resigning. “The buck stops here,” Romulo said. The storm surge slowly ebbed, the public perception changing into one that said, “Here is a president who has control of his government, and here were officials who have control of their fates.”

Today, what we have are officials whose responsibility for the mess is direct and inescapable. Today, what we have are officials who need not show self-sacrifice, who need only acknowledge guilt. Today, we have the worst crisis the P-Noy administration has ever faced. We do not see any resignations, and the state of the nation may not be the celebratory one of the last four years.

It can well be a state of siege.

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TAGS: Benhur Luy, dap, DAP fund, DAP funds, Disbursement Acceleration Program, Edwin Lacierda, malacanang, pork barrel scam, pork scam
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