Column: Dear Butch

Published on July 8, 2014.

I have written more than once on the integrity and competence of Butch Abad, whom I first met in the early 1980s. He has always seemed to me to represent the virtues of the transformational politics the Jesuit provincial at that dangerous time, Fr. Ben Nebres, asked student activists to envision; nothing in his political career since then has caused me to change my mind. Not his agonizing tenure at the Department of Agrarian Reform, not his quixotic bid for the speakership of the House of Representatives, not his leadership of the Liberal Party at a turbulent time—and certainly not his stewardship of the government’s entire budget apparatus since his good friend assumed the presidency in 2010.

But as architect of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) declared unconstitutional by a unanimous Supreme Court, he is the man most responsible for President Aquino’s worst political loss; the ruling on the DAP, in the words of the Inquirer editorial yesterday (Monday), was “an almost complete defeat for the Aquino administration.” He must bear the full weight of that responsibility, and resign.

* * *

It is difficult to write these words, not because the conclusion was hard to read and harder to reach, but because in fact the logic was inescapable. Nothing in the Court’s majority decision impugns Abad’s integrity and competence, and for almost every absolutist, “academic” interpretation we read in Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s separate opinion, we find a generous, realistic counterpoint in Associate Justice Marvic Leonen’s concurring and dissenting opinion. (The word in quotes comes from a passage in Leonen’s opinion, which gently but firmly disagrees with an argument of Carpio’s.)

Even Carpio notes, in his conclusion, that the DAP “has a noble end.” Leonen’s view is both less categorical and more specific. “DAP is a management program that appears to have been impelled with good motives. It generally sought to bring government to the people in the most efficient and effective manner. I entertain no doubt that not a few communities have been inspired or benefited from the implementation of many of these projects.”

But the Court found that the means by which the DAP was implemented violated constitutional norms. In the well-tempered majority decision written by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, three reforms of the budget process were struck down: the creative redefinition of savings, the “cross-border” transfer of some of these savings (to offices outside the executive branch), and the funding of initiatives not specifically appropriated for in the national budget law.

* * *

At the moment, I cannot recall a particular instance in President Aquino’s numerous references to his administration’s thoroughgoing reform of the budget process, when he pointed to these three procedures of the DAP as symbols of reform success. But I believed then (when the first stories about the DAP broke), and continue to believe today, that the procedures now declared unconstitutional were part of the same general approach to budget reform. It was, to use the terms Nebres taught, a transformational takeover of the most transactional aspect of governance.

This partly explains why, in many of President Aquino’s speeches, budget reform is top of mind. It made everything else in his mandate possible. Here, for example, is Mr. Aquino inviting Malaysian businessmen to invest in the Philippines, last February. “The first thing we did was to stabilize the foundations and to undertake a top-to-bottom cleaning: fixing cracks, plugging leaks, and getting rid of debris. Upon taking office, we introduced the zero-based budgeting to eliminate ineffective programs and projects, and channel funding into initiatives that were proven to have a tangible impact for the people.”

Okay, that last clause may be an unobvious reference to the DAP. But the point is: Reform of the budget process received the highest priority of the Aquino administration. It is in this context that I understand the DAP; the procedures now declared unconstitutional were conceived and put to use as reforms.

The criticism that Abad should have known better may be analysis-on-hindsight. After all, the same Supreme Court found the Priority Development Assistance Fund constitutional twice before finally ruling that it was in fact a violation of the Constitution. It is certainly not true, as the popular social media activist Tonyo Cruz has repeatedly asserted on Twitter, that the DAP is a scam, in the same way that the Janet Napoles-PDAF enterprise was a scam. Nothing in the Supreme Court decision, or in any of the other opinions, suggests that the DAP was a scam; that is, that it was designed to shortchange the public and line private pockets.

But now that these three DAP reforms have been struck down, there is no escaping the inevitable: Butch Abad must set the example and step down. There is a lot that needs to be done, to ensure the continuity of the initiatives he helped start after 2016; he can do that from another position in the administration or as a leader of the Liberal Party. But the maturity of the Philippine polity that he has devoted his entire career to demands the highest standards, and that includes stepping down in the wake of a unanimous Supreme Court repudiation of the reformist nature of his centerpiece program.

I am certain I will receive feedback from other Abad supporters, in the same way I heard from supporters of Bam Aquino before the 2013 elections, when I urged him not to run for the Senate yet. The feedback will be familiar: We need more good men and women in public office. Why deny them the opportunity?

I do not have the answer. All I know is that transformational politics measures itself by a different arithmetic.

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