By Philip Jude Acidre
AN ACCIDENT, according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, is an attribute which may or nor may belong to a subject without affecting its essence. To use plain language, it refers to a characteristic which has no necessary connection to the intrinsic nature of the thing itself – the essential property he referred to as substance. An accident is what an object may or may not be – without changing the very nature of what the object is.
I hope my philosophy professors will forgive me if I hijack this principle to delineate the accidents and substance of legislative representation. The elected Congress is the very essence of representative democracy, which by common consent, the people choose their representatives to act for and in their behalf the governance of the State – hence the power to make laws. Considering that democracy is a theoretical continuum that takes varied shapes and forms relative to diverging cultural, political and historical realities – the extent of legislative representation determines the amount of, or the lack of democracy in a political state.
In theory and practice, our elected members of Congress are representatives of the people. When a Senator drafts a bill and submits it for consideration of his peers, he does so as an elected representative of the people. When a member of the lower house votes on a question of national policy, he does so, not for his or her own volition, but as a representative of the people. When members of Congress converge on the very first day of the legislative calendar to listen to the President of the Philippines deliver his account on the state of the nation – in theory, it is as if the President is making his report to the entire country, with the elected representatives as the audience delegated to listen for and in behalf of the electorate.
This is where the divergence of the executive and legislative branches begins. The legislature proposes and passes laws. The executive department enacts and implements it. I make no pretenses about being a constitutional expert because I am not. But elementary political science would tell us that it is within the purview of the executive to ensure that the affairs of government are run as effectively and efficiently as possible and that it is the role of the legislature to ensure that the acts of government are consistent with the sacred will of the people and that their desire for happiness, peace and freedom are forever preserved.
But there are accidents, both in the literal and philosophical sense, that have well contributed to the evolution of the political office. The need for the executive to maintain some persuasive form of control have contributed to some level of institutionalized cooperation or say, amalgamation of political functions. The need for legislative approval on some acts of government has resulted in some concession to the legislature for effective control over the disbursement of public funds and even the delivery of public services. In a way, that is how the pork barrel culture has crept into our governance system. The exigencies of political survival for many of our legislators, especially those elected to represent the districts, took advantage of the situation. The need for re-election provided a formidable pressure for the legislature to deliver government projects that frankly speaking, do not belong to the substance of legislative representation.
It is important to underscore that there is nothing wrong for government officials, including legislators, to deliver public services such as infrastructure, scholarships and medical assistance. In fact, it has always been my belief that providing social services somehow provides legislators with a preview of the actual needs of their constituents and some idea of what long term solution should be taken in response. Such social services could also assure the people that their government is concerned with their sad plight and that a government feels responsible for them. Besides who would care for laws and policies if the very basic needs of the poor and the marginalized are left unnoticed and uncared for. People should witness their government working for their welfare – and in the long run, learn to demand the right and proper services due to them as taxpayers and citizens of this country.
But then again, we must not forget that the function of delivering services is but an accident of legislative representation. It is sad that in the face of the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund, some legislators sound helpless on how to go on with their function of legislative representation. Identifying and providing funds for infrastructure project is not an essential function of a legislator. Nor is providing scholarships or medical assistance. But it goes without saying that ensuring that the right infrastructure is provided by the government, that access to tertiary education be widened and that quality healthcare is given by government hospitals – and the policy or legislation required in order to make that happen – that belongs to the very essence of legislative representation.
The effective abolition of the PDAF should be an eye-opener not only to our elected representatives but to the electorate as well. Those elected to Congress should go back to their real jobs as policymakers and legislators not project implementers or service providers. Instead of whining over lost funds for scholarships and medical assistance, it is about time to consider strengthening those agencies and institutions which are mandated by law to deliver these services.
Let us take for example medical assistance and scholarship programs. For nine years, I have worked with PDAF funded programs for indigent patients confined in government hospitals and the poor but deserving college students enrolled in state colleges and universities. I will not argue over the benefits of the program nor take lightly the impact the abolition of the PDAF will make on their future. I know the abolition of the PDAF will affect the many thousands of those who go to the Senate or the House of Representatives for medical assistance, many of them in life threatening situations. Scholars who enjoy PDAF-funded scholarship grants are for sure worried on how they can continue on with their college education. I will not make any arguments about that. The PDAF was good enough for all the good that was able to provide. On the other hand, however, that it has created more problems by contributing to the culture of patronage breeding in our political system. Sadly, it has created a skewed and distorted sense of dependence on what political patrons can provide, exchanging their citizenship for some sort of political mendicancy.
In all those years I have worked with those programs, one thing was clear to me – it was not and cannot be a solution to the socio-economic predicaments that we sought to address. Will providing more and more funds for medical assistance improve the state of public health in ten years? The obvious answer is no. Will appropriating hundreds more of scholarship grants improve the level of performance in our colleges and universities? No. Then, the truth is, even if millions have been funneled to provide for these funds, if there was no intention, ever, of empowering and strengthening the very institutions – schools, hospitals, local governments – tasked to deliver these services, all would have been in vain. It is good to have these programs and be of service to those who have the least opportunities in life. But however laudable, being fixated on these programs would cause more of a distraction to what really needs to be done.
Those who lament the abolition of the PDAF worry about what will happen to those needing medical assistance programs. The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) provides a similar assistance program for indigent patients. In lieu of PDAF-funded medical assistance program, legislators can refer the patients to PCSO. Or otherwise, our honorable legislators can begin tackling the reform our national healthcare system leading hopefully to a more inclusive universal healthcare coverage for all Filipinos. Most of those requesting medical assistance ask help for out-of-the-pocket expenses, such as the purchase of medicines and/or laboratory procedures not available at our government hospitals. Why don’t we work on amending the charter of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) so that the said government corporation can start investing in our government hospitals, providing funds for the rehabilitation if not provision of needed medicines and laboratory procedures and thus reduce out-of-the-pocket costs? Why don’t we push for increased PhilHealth coverage and thus widening the implementation of the zero-balance billing policy? If PhilHealth can provide financial assistance to local government units for the improvement of rural health centers, why can’t we ask them to do the same for government hospitals? If the assistance of PhilHealth is not enough, then, why don’t our legislators perform their task of examining the national budget more diligently that they already do, just to ensure that the needed funds are provided by the national government to the hospitals within their respective legislative districts. If we have improved facilities in our government hospitals and increased Philhealth coverage (which I believed is tied to the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program of the Aquino administration), would it not in the long term be a better solution than just providing a one-time medical assistance?
Second thing is the scholarship program. The abolition of the PDAF could finally push our legislators to consider a legislated rationalization of our higher education structure. It would be good to institute reforms in the college loan fund managed by the Commission on Higher Education to make it more accessible and at the same time make our scholars more responsible especially in the repayment of their student loans. If the United States can provide mechanisms that ensure that the millions of college graduates who depend on student loans to pay afterwards, I see no reason why we cannot do the same here in the Philippines. Of course that goes without saying that we need to assess and evaluate the quality of our state colleges and universities and their capability to produce highly competent graduates who could easily find jobs here and abroad. By rationalizing the number of colleges and universities per region and area of specialization and aligning our government scholarship programs with priority college courses, we will not only increase the number of graduates but also address the problem of course and employment mismatch. With better colleges and universities in place, our scholarships would go to those who badly need and rightly deserve the assistance for college education. Our legislators can also craft laws that would facilitate the shift from content to skill based learning in order to put our academic institutions at par with current international standards or legislation that will pursue integration of the Philippine academic system with those of our neighbors in the ASEAN or around the world. These reforms in our higher educational system will also have to go side by side with reforms in our technical education system that will bring about the needed improvements in the content and delivery of instruction in technical schools. Perhaps, some legislators can even introduce, via legislation, a standard for distance learning, so that utilizing modern media such as television, radio or the internet, more and more college students wherever they may be in the Philippines or even around the world, can access post-secondary education. In a technologically dynamic and constantly evolving world, the possibilities of what our legislators can do for college education are simply limitless.
These points are but a few of what our legislators can do in a “pork-less” Congress that is yet to come. A leaner Congress would mean a meatier one, one that is more dedicated to the substance of the democratic ideas that we all strongly uphold and the common good that we hold to achieve, and less beholden to the accidents of politics and patronage that more often than not cloud our sense of the better that we can do. It’s not just about ending graft and corruption. It’s about restoring the very values that define democracy as it should be – a government of the people, by the people and for the people.