Became too full of themselves

July 11, 2014
(The Philippine Star) July 11, 2014

The stress test that was Yolanda revealed it. A distraught local businessman complaining about peace and order was told he is still alive so in so many words, please shut up.

A CNN reporter who told the cabinet member of the same uncollected bodies day after day was effectively told he was hallucinating.

The helpless mayor seeking national assistance was told in a 45 minute lecture to ponder on the fact that he is a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino.

The lack of empathy bordering on boorishness was probably just a defense mechanism in reaction to a feeling of inadequacy in the face of an enormous problem. But the sarcasm became a trademark in news conferences and ambush interviews.

This isn’t what it is supposed to be. P-Noy was elected in a blaze of glory with a promise to clean up government by doing things right. After four years, anyari?

I guess it is typical of people who taste power… sooner or later, they become too full of themselves. They also committed the worse mistake ever… believing their propaganda about how good they are.

But who wouldn’t be tempted? International rating agencies, bank analysts even world leaders were heaping them praises and they haven’t even started to do anything yet other than a promise to clean up and do things right.

Compared with the last administration, they considered themselves holier than them. But the clean up drive was easier said than done. And worse, talking about it consumed their efforts almost to the exclusion of anything else. Their inexperience showed as critics called them the Student Council.

To be fair, it is not easy to make the government move. Rules in place designed to prevent bureaucratic thievery also prevented good projects from seeing the light of day.

There is also the thing called the Constitution that demands separation of powers. And the power of the purse is with Congress, a beast of an institution many of whose members have a voracious appetite for official or unofficial bribery.

So Malacañang’s holy men decided to compromise and that’s at the root of their problems with DAP, PDAF and the current crisis of confidence over the use of government funds. Like Presidents before him, P-Noy agreed to use pork as a way of buying cooperation from Congress.

It got worse. Government failed to carry out much needed infrastructure projects, initially resulting in lackluster economic growth. They were cleaning out the system, they explained and we understood that had to be done.

Butch Abad, the experienced politician with civil society roots, realized government must move faster. Butch saw that many government agencies had limited “absorptive capacity” or in plain language, incapable of implementing big projects quickly.

A good example is DOTC under Mar Roxas that was in perpetual “study” mode and unable to get any significant project started. Butch later blamed DOTC’s failure on what he called its “technical deficit”, again understandable because Mar staffed it with lawyers rather than engineers.

Butch saw so much idle money in the Treasury waiting for the bureaucracy to get its act together. But government was borrowing from the public in regular auctions of Treasury bills and paying interest on that.

Probably thinking like a private sector CFO, Butch might have thought it made sense to pool what he saw as “savings” and generally unutilized funds to get faster moving projects going. A good strategy in theory for a corporate CFO but government has its own rules.

Butch did it anyway and DAP was born. If you look at the list of projects in a memorandum Butch furnished the Supreme Court, many are good projects that needed to be done.

However, as in the case of DOTC and the MRT rail cars allocation of P4.5 billion, DAP didn’t get that project rolling quickly anyway. DOTC’s inept project management kept the funds meant to alleviate the daily woes of commuters idle as ever. The DOTC experience killed the justification for DAP.

And DAP turned out to be in violation of the Constitution. Maybe if Butch stayed within the parameters of funding projects within the executive branch, they wouldn’t be in this so much trouble. But they decided to dole out money to senators and congressmen that looked like an exchange deal: DAP for conviction of Corona, DAP for the passage of pet legislation.

Using pork with little controls, so as to allow the likes of Napoles to exploit it, tainted the lily white image P-Noy had or thought he had. It made him no different from his predecessors. He lost the moral high ground for preaching good governance.

But by their second year in office, power really got into their heads. It made them arrogant, or some might say, even more so. They can do no wrong. It didn’t help that SWS and Pulse Asia surveys revealed a continuing high level of trust for P-Noy.

I imagine this was when they got even more careless. It seems that DAP was never seriously vetted by any competent legal group before it was implemented. A second opinion, at the very least, is important for a major initiative such as this one.

I realize the Malacanang Legal team has had a laughable reputation of Supreme Court reversals. But still, having a team of competent lawyers say that DAP was constitutional or at least, defensible to be such, would allow P-Noy and Butch to claim good faith after it was slammed down by the Supreme Court. Now, they may have problems claiming that.

Of course there is a presumption of regularity that covers P-Noy and Butch. Otherwise, government may end up in a standstill, a worse situation as officials will refrain to move if there is even a hint of constitutional doubt.

The thing that makes me feel so bad about this administration is the way they fumble like amateurs yet they strut around like masters of the universe. Their mistakes from the start of their watch could have been avoidable if there was more humility, starting from P-Noy. But I don’t think hubris on the part of P-Noy and Butch amount to plunder.

It is unfortunate that the tables are being successfully turned against this administration apparently by those who are involved in the Napoles pork scams. They have successfully placed P-Noy in the defensive. They are on the verge of denying P-Noy his legacy as the anti corruption President.

We ought not to lose our focus at this point. We must make sure that the senators, congressmen and bureaucrats who have been milking the Treasury for years get their just punishment.

Our institutions are being tested and that’s a good thing. But the headlines and opinions expressed in traditional and social media paint a level of political instability that can’t be good for the economy. We cannot afford to look like a noisy and unreliable third world economy investors should ignore.

I imagine everything starts with P-Noy and how he addresses this serious crisis in the tail end of his watch. His SONA towards the end of this month should give us hints on how he plans to respond. P-Noy is probably not going to be impeached but this is now uncertain in the light of his having lost his power of the pork over the legislators.

If P-Noy had a better record in delivering the tangibles people look for in an administration, his current problems wouldn’t be as bad. People will give him the benefit of the doubt because he improved their quality of life. But this is not so.

There is no secret on what the people will be looking for in the next few months. Get NAIA civilized and its second parallel runway built. Alleviate the daily sufferings of commuters with a better functioning mass transit system. Implement the right policies to keep food prices down as this affects labor costs and our competitiveness.

With a rising inflation rate, what is P-Noy doing about fast rising prices of food and other prime commodities?Daily reports of dissatisfaction by housewives because of rising prices of rice, garlic, chicken, pork, vegetables will probably do more to undo P-Noy faster than DAP or PDAF.

The masa are not as surprised about DAP and PDAF as folks in the educated middle class are. But hit them in their guts with inflated food prices and there will be serious political problems.

Maybe for now, a sincere apology for the mistake that is DAP will help. And so will going out of their way to show where the money went. Refusing to disclose all until after an appeal to the Supreme Court comes out as stonewalling and is as good as a guilty plea. 

As I said, a little humility will do P-Noy and his boys a lot of good. But that’s like saying the end is near or is there a chance for the impossible to happen?