Debating the DAP

Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad’s acceptance of an invitation to lecture on the budget at the University of the Philippines School of Economics the other week would have been the perfect occasion to grill him about his brainchild, the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program. Academic culture encourages people to discuss and debate issues in a manner and in a setting far removed from the din of the streets. In the university, it is often said, the only force that is respected is the force of the better argument.

Alas, nothing much was reported about what was said in the lecture or what questions were asked in the open forum. The news reports focused on the demonstrators outside the lecture hall who mobbed, heckled, and threw coins and crumpled paper at Abad as he made his way to his vehicle. It was a sad day for the academe, the media, and the tradition of reasoned dissent in which UP takes enormous pride.

No doubt, Abad came to UP secure in the thought that he had nothing to hide or be ashamed about, while hoping that sober discussion might clarify issues that had been clouded in the passionate clash of diverse perspectives. It was probably naive of him not to have anticipated that kind of protest in UP. Even so, one cannot but applaud his readiness to enter the lion’s den and do debate. We were expected to disagree with him, question his facts, challenge his view of government, and dispute his conclusions. But, we could not do any of these by shouting slogans and angrily mobbing him.

If we are to demand transparency and accountability from our leaders, we have to be prepared to do our homework. There is enough material about the DAP and the Priority Development Assistance Fund that we can extract from the website of the Department of Budget and Management to be able to intelligently engage Abad. Since the time of his predecessor, the late Emilia Boncodin, the DBM has been uploading information about the budget, including pork barrel use, that any citizen can try to harness to criticize government, or simply to understand how the people’s money is being spent. Much has been done under Abad’s watch to make the website user-friendly, but, as one might expect from any government document or website, the material represents the official view of things. The information we want is not available in the form we can immediately use. We need to invest research time to tally the figures, read between the lines, uncover patterns, or draw useful insights from the data.

Let’s take, as an example, the amount of money disbursed from the DAP’s pooled “savings” and “unprogrammed funds” starting from the last quarter of 2011 till the second quarter of 2013. Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco had demanded from Abad a complete list of the lawmakers who had DAP-funded projects. What the DBM put out instead was an aggregated list of all the projects funded from the DAP—as if to say that the biggest percentage of the DAP funds were put to good use.

By patiently tallying the amounts assigned to each lawmaker, Tiangco was able to show that at least P8.8 billion in DAP funds went to additional PDAF projects nominated by lawmakers. The point he wanted to make, I guess, was that a few favored legislators cornered the bulk of these funds, a fact that would have come as a surprise to only a few.

Looking at the same information, I realized there was a more basic question that was begging to be asked. How come no legislator came forward to object when the administration was asking lawmakers to submit proposals for projects outside the normal budgetary process? The reason, of course, is simple: The pork barrel at that point had not been declared unconstitutional. Who would object to additional pork barrel? Where the additional money was coming from was clearly the least of the lawmakers’ concern. The pooling of savings and their utilization for purposes to be decided by the President were powers they took for granted as belonging to the executive. Indeed, this was the norm and the accepted practice in all previous administrations.

Presumably, all our legislators have read the Constitution. But, no one was bothered by “cross-border transfers” or conscience-stricken by the use of savings to fund projects not explicitly itemized in the General Appropriations Act. No one—until the Supreme Court told them these practices violated the Constitution.

Thanks to the revelations of whistle-blowers like Benhur Luy, we now know that not only lawmakers recommended the projects to be funded but also the government office through which these funds were to be released, and, most important of all, the contractors and suppliers who were to carry out the projects. We now know how well-connected “innovative” contractors like Janet Lim Napoles made it possible for pork barrel funds to end up in the pockets of legislators. Understandably, the DBM website does not show the names of any contractor. Selecting and vetting them are, after all, the responsibility of the implementing government agencies.

Again, we now also know that these agencies were powerless to resist lawmakers who insisted on naming the contractors who would carry out their projects. This was a mockery of existing procurement rules and procedures. It remains a big puzzle how the DBM could have released money so cavalierly to ill-conceived projects, and how so many useless projects could be cleared so routinely by the Commission on Audit. It is a testimony to the diffused powers of our elected officials and the boldness of fixers like Napoles that the bureaucracy could do little to check the corruption. We can’t fight this system unless we go to its roots.