Waste, Congress, and idiocy

By: Solita Collas-Monsod - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 10,2020 - 08:00 AM

So much media attention has been given to the Cayetano-Velasco speakership controversy. And rightly so. In a nutshell, Alan Peter Cayetano reneged on his “gentlemen’s agreement” with Lord Allan Velasco on the speakership-sharing agreement. I did not comment on this controversy, because the terms gentleman and congressman have been antithetical in the Philippines for at least 60 years now, so I was not surprised.

But I do draw the line when we Filipinos are being screwed in the process. After all, we pay for the salaries and perks of these congresspersons, and when they are given an unscheduled vacation, the cost to us is roughly P4 million per month, per idiot (borrowing from Mark Twain, who wrote “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself”). For a 300-member Congress, that means Filipinos are spending P1.2 billion for the month’s vacation. Waste upon waste.

Then there is the matter of the 2021 budget, the enactment of which is the main role of Congress. That, too, was suspended, but Cayetano at least gave the job over to a small group of “diehard” allies. It is a comfort to know that Joey Salceda and Stella Quimbo are in that group—not because they are “diehards,” because that really dismays me—but because they have intellectual expertise that is very rare in Congress.

More recently the woes of students, parents, and teachers adjusting to the new normal of distance learning—excuse me, blended learning— have also captured the headlines. And Education Secretary Liling Briones is caught in the crosshairs, because of her cry of triumph regarding the school opening over COVID-19. I am interviewing her for my TV show, and I hope she is more forthcoming and accurate than her undersecretaries have been. School enrollment is only 89 percent of what it was last school year, which means something like 3 million out-of-school youth. The long-term effects of an uneducated labor force, coupled with the effects of a school system which may not result in quality education, are too depressing to contemplate.

I also understand that some of her budget requests for 2021 went unheeded. Her request was for something like P30 billion for the modules, and she was granted P15 billion, plus another P4 billion for contingencies or the like. Congress’ heavy (and idiotic?) hand again!

And speaking of waste, Congress, and idiocy, we may as well add injustice and the Senate to the mix. A senator’s salary is the same as a congressperson’s—P295,191 a month—but the allowances and maybe discretionary funds and memberships and chairmanships increase that to anywhere from P600,000 to P5 million a year (and this estimate, courtesy of the late Sen. Miriam Santiago, was for the year 2013, when senators’ salaries were only P90,000 a month). But to make the estimate of senatorial costs to the Filipinos consistent with what it costs them per congressperson, we will just divide the budget for the Senate by the number of senators. This estimate gives us P396 million for each of 24 senators, their staff, consultants, and Senate employees.

Sen. Leila de Lima is one of those senators. But she has been unjustly incarcerated, courtesy of President Duterte, since February 2017. Why unjust? Witnesses for the prosecution in her trial have essentially exonerated her: An Anti-Money Laundering Council official testified that she had no bank accounts, drug-related or otherwise, belying former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II’s claims. Gen. Benjamin Magalong, former head of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, said she was never in his radar. Other prosecution witnesses were caught perjuring themselves (inconsistent testimonies).

But she is still in detention, because that is what Mr. Duterte wants. That is not, of course, the Senate’s fault. What is their fault is that they will not allow her to participate in the Senate’s committee hearings and plenary sessions via Zoom.

As a senator, she can submit bills, resolutions, etc., but that’s it. When she asked the Senate to allow her to Zoom in with them, there being no legal impediments, they denied her request. Unjust to her, to the Senate itself (she will surely improve the quality of deliberations), and unjust to the Filipino taxpayers who are shelling out P396 million a year for her and not getting their money’s worth, through no fault of her own. What a tragic, idiotic waste of talent.

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