Legacy reminders looming before 2016

With almost half way through his term, President Aquino may have to act ahead of time to put in place whatever legacies he wants to have into law. After next year’s election, members of congress may not be necessarily the same people now and will in fact get ready to pick sides for his successor in 2016.  While he may still have the same number of support after next year’s elections (for local and national candidates) he may like to hedge his bets and do what he can now.

 

From BusinessWorld Philippines

October 09, 2012

Reformer or promiser?

IS PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III a reformer or, simply, a promiser? More than one-third of his presidential term is gone. While he has addressed a few low-lying fruits, such as, for example, the ban on “wang-wang,” he has yet to put in place serious reforms that would strengthen the Philippine economy and its weak political institutions. Does he still have the time to deal with the more challenging high-hanging fruit before the end of his term?

Mr. Aquino doesn’t have the luxury of time. Congressional session days are dwindling. Congress resumed its session Monday, break again from Oct. 20-Nov. 4, and then resume on Nov. 5 to Dec. 21, for a total of 44 working days before the long Christmas break. More than half of the remaining session days will be devoted to the approval of the 2013 national government budget.

Next year, attendance in Congress is expected to be spotty as legislators hit the campaign trail for the May 2013 national and local elections.

The window of opportunity for carrying out meaningful, long-term, and game-changing, reforms is fast closing. And what happens after the 2013 elections is anybody’s guess. The optimistic view is that politicians of all colors and persuasion may continue to support the President’s economic and political reform agenda. The pessimistic view is that the support will slowly dissipate as politicians start to gravitate toward some presidential candidates in preparation for the 2016 presidential elections.

Which view will dominate would depend on how fierce or friendly the competition among the contending candidates for senatorial and congressional positions.

Logically, Mr. Aquino’s reputation as a reformer rests on how many, and in what form, serious reform measures he will be able to put in place from now and before the end of his term. Below is a short-list of such measures.

(1) Freedom of Information (FOI) bill: During the May 2010 presidential campaign, then candidate Benigno Aquino III promised his strong support to the FOI bill. It was part of his campaign for clean government, he said. Now, after 15 months in office, the FOI bill continues to languish in Congress, with fading chances of getting approved.

The President didn’t even bother to put the FOI bill in his priority agenda. Naturally, journalists and citizens who care about openness and access to public records were disheartened. The leaders of the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition lament: “Kung talagang gusto, hahanap ng paraan. Kung talagang ayaw, hahanap ng dahilan.” [If the President really wanted, he’ll find a way. If not, he’ll find an excuse].

The guessing game among political pundits is when the FOI bill would get the “Mona Lisa” treatment, that is, “lie there and die there.”

(2) The Reproductive Health (RH) Bill: The RH Bill is pro-poor, pro-women, and pro-choice. Slower population growth facilitates economic growth and lessens the stress on the environment. This is one bill that should have been passed a long time ago.

In his many pronouncements, Mr. Aquino has supported the RH Bill. Yet, the bill is still tied up in congressional debates. For a president with high approval and trust rating, and who can no longer run for reelection, why is he not actively pushing for the bill’s approval?

(3) Budget impoundment control bill. This bill is the best antidote to an abusive and fiscally irresponsible President. During the Arroyo years, she abused her power to augment specific items in the national budget. In response, the top guns of the President’s political party, the Liberal Party, has filed bills in Congress to limit such abuses. President Aquino, himself, filed the Budget Control and Impoundment Act. Other versions of the bill were filed by then Senator [now Secretary of Interior and Local Government] Mar Roxas, Representative [now Senator] Teofisto Guingona III, and then Representative [now Secretary of Transportation and Communications] Joseph Emilio Abaya.

An abusive President can rearrange the entire national budget after it has been approved by Congress, change its priorities, and thus negate the congressional power of the purse. Arroyo did this repeatedly during her decade-long reign. And it was done by Mr. Aquino last year. It would appear that any President, no matter how “clean,” could not resist the temptation of undoing what Congress has authorized him to do.

For posterity and for the sake of future Presidents who may not be as “clean” as President Aquino, he should spare them the temptation of undermining the congressional power of the purse by pushing for the passage of the Budget Control and Impoundment Act (BCIA).

There are benefits and costs for its passage into law. But, in the long run, the benefits outweigh the costs. It will strengthen the budget process, foster openness, and institute fiscal responsibility.

(4) Rationalization of fiscal incentives. As of June 10, 2010, there are about 180 fiscal incentives laws and issuances in the Philippines. President Aquino has stated his support for the rationalization of fiscal incentives and listed fiscal incentives reform as a priority legislative measure.

The approval of a strong version of the rationalization of fiscal incentives could open up at lot of possibilities. It would allow the reduction of corporate income tax rates in the country (one of the highest in this part of the world), improve fiscal outlook, enhance competition, and level the playing field.

But to date, this measure continues to languish in Congress. A weak version of the bill is moving rather slowly, and that is not likely to survive. Why? Is the pressure from business interest groups too strong for the “reformist” President?

(5) Anti-political dynasty measure. Section 26 of Article II of the 1987 Philippine Constitution declares: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” As President, Mr. Aquino is sworn to protect and obey the Constitution.

The list of candidates for national and local offices in the May 2012 elections shows how a few political families, rather than political institutions, determine the future of this country. Mr. Aquino’s failure to push for, and Congress to approve a law defining the terms and scope of this constitutional mandate is a monumental error of omission. And since the language and intent are clear, Aquino cannot, and should not, ignore this constitutional rule prohibiting political dynasties.

These five measures, by no means not an exhaustive list, are tough, but not improbable, to push. All are achievable if only Aquino will show the same resolve and steadfastness that he demonstrated when he had the ARMM elections postponed, Mrs. Arroyo prosecuted, and Chief Justice Corona impeached.

The sad part is that Mr. Aquino has no excuses for not doing the right thing. He remains popular and trustworthy. A recent (August 31-September 2012) Pulse Asia survey results put both his performance rating and trust rating at 78%. Filipinos are genuinely hopeful that Aquino could provide the strong leadership that is necessary to get the country back on track after a decade of lost opportunities. And the last thing that he should worry about is losing part of his political capital if he did the right thing.

If Mr. Aquino does not do the right thing now by dealing with some high-hanging fruits, he probably never will.

Benjamin Diokno is professor of Economics at the School of Economics, University of the Philippines (Diliman). He was formerly secretary of budget and management in the Estrada Cabinet and undersecretary for budget operations in the Aquino 1 administration.

Article location : http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?section=Opinion&title=Reformer or promiser?&id=59769

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