Wake Up, Philippines!

Vetoing openness

Posted in Budget, Constitutional Rights, Editorial, Right To Information, Tax by Erineus on February 1, 2009

In the 2007 budget law, a right-to-information provision was vetoed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. (In 2008, the provision did not even find its way into the budget law.) In the P1.4-trillion General Appropriations Act of 2009 that the President is about to sign, the provision is back. Will the President veto it again?

Sen. Francis Pangilinan is right to sound the alarm. “Mindless of the numerous corruption scandals that rocked the nation last year, the Office of the President once again did not include the Right to Information section in its proposed 2009 P1.4-trillion budget. It is not clear whether this was devious desire or just an oversight,” he noted in a press statement. He said a people’s organization, Alyansa Agrikultura, had alerted him to it.

What does the section say?

“Right to Information. Subject to limitations as may be provided by law, the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, guaranteed under Section 7, Article III of the Constitution as well as with the state policy of full disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest, every government agency shall, upon request by any citizen, make available the data under their possession for information, scrutiny, copying, or reproduction of all records of information, in any form whatsoever, pertaining to the implementation of the appropriations under this Act including but not limited to information on projects, disbursement of funds, reports, contract bidding and awards.”

This is a tonic provision that can help restore public confidence in the political process. It is also, after the passed budget was amended to accommodate a P50-billion “economic stimulus package,” a necessary one. Requiring “every government agency” to “make available the data” a citizen may request “pertaining to the implementation of the appropriations under this Act” will help counter inordinate greed in government spending – or at least supply concerned citizens with the legal ammunition to fight corruption.

But President Arroyo vetoed a similar provision in the 2007 budget. She did not include the provision in the 2009 bill. Now that it has been inserted into the budget and actually passed, will she veto it again? We can think of only one reason she would do so: to protect the corrupt.

* * *

Denying transparency

The use of bicameral conference committees to forge a legislative measure acceptable to both the House and the Senate is a longstanding practice – and one that, as we and others have pointed out more than once, is prone to abuse. It has, all too often, given rise to the so-called third chamber of Congress, a shadow (and shadowy) branch of government. The way the “bicam” on the 2009 budget has conducted its business, however, occasions deeper worry; the concentration of power that we know is unhealthy for democracy has become even more acute.

The substance of the “economic stimulus package” that is a feature of the 2009 budget as finally approved is crucial, of course. A pro-administration congressman said of the P50-billion package: “This could be construed as a way to bankroll the political ambitions of some people.” Or the political interests of the administration.

But it is the way the administration engineered the passage of the budget that is gravely troubling.

Members of the bicameral conference committee had authorized Rep. Junie Cua, the chairman of the House appropriations committee, and Sen. Edgardo Angara, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, to meet over the holidays to thresh out the differences between the respective bills. The members were wrong to do this: to concentrate the power of the purse in only two pairs of hands.

But Cua and Angara did meet; they did the work of reconciling provisions and amending the budget – and they did not bother to report to their members afterwards.

“I cannot recall any similar occurrence in the past when this has happened,” House Deputy Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora said. Oh, the bicam did meet, after the changes had been fixed. But only for 15 minutes. “This is farcical,” Zamora said.

That much is transparent.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:23:00 01/29/2009

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