Barely two months into his six-year term, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has already gone on State visits to Indonesia and Singapore, two of the Philippines’ neighboring countries and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Malacañang lost no time in declaring both visits as “fruitful,” in response to, and in anticipation of, criticism that there are far more urgent concerns domestically that need Presidential attention— that, in short, he has been traveling while the country burns.
International relations do have a bearing on domestic issues, and Mr. Marcos did bring back agreements, mostly on security and economic matters, that hopefully could help strengthen the Philippine capacity to address some of its current problems, such as the harassment by Chinese sea craft of Filipino fisherfolk in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
How ASEAN members can help each other in dealing with Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea was possibly among those issues of common concern that Mr. Marcos discussed with the President of Indonesia and Singapore’s Prime Minister. Indonesia has stopped China’s fishing boats from poaching in its waters, and by sharing its experience with the Philippines can help the country to better protect its territorial waters and defend the rights of its fisherfolk.
Those possibilities notwithstanding, there are nevertheless urgent issues and problems that demand Mr. Marcos’s attention, among them the slide to unprecedentedly low levels of the value of the peso, the surge in the inflation rate — and the questions and reservations of many sectors over his 2023 budget proposal.
The national budget is supposed to reflect the administration’s vision and priorities for the country and how, in the next fiscal year, the realization of that vision can be advanced. It should be one of the primary indications of how committed government is to addressing the concerns of the citizenry that put it in office. But the proposed budget contradicts its own intentions at almost every turn.
The priorities that the record-breaking P5.268 trillion 2023 national budget is intended to address, according to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), are education, infrastructure, health, social protection and welfare, and agriculture. Given those priorities, a number of the cuts and increases in the budgets of the agencies concerned demand explanation if not outright revisions.
Congress passes the General Appropriations Act every year, and will approve the 2023 National Expenditure Program (NEP) after it is debated, discussed and subjected to public hearings. But the President of the Philippines, who after all crafted it with the assistance of the DBM, could always weigh in by taking the time to explain why the budget of this or that government agency has been slashed while those of others have been increased. He could either agree with the suggestions of various sectors on the changes needed in his proposal, or enlighten his constituency on what considerations shaped the allocations for the government’s various agencies. But he was abroad when he could have done either, and has been silent since.
As the Constitution mandates, the allotment for education is the biggest in the proposed NEP at P852.8 billion. But a breakdown of that amount reveals that the allocation for State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), compared to 2022’s, has been cut by P10.9 billion. The budget for the entire University of the Philippines System (UP), which has seven constituent universities in Luzon, the Visayas, Mindanao and cyber space, will also be cut by P2.45 billion.
Only the budget for the Department of Education (DepEd) in the education sector has been increased to P667 billion. But whether that amount will enable it to remedy the perennial shortage of classrooms is doubtful. The shortage has forced many public schools to cram more students into their classrooms than is safe, and/or to have two or more shifts of student classes a day. This state of affairs demands an even bigger share of the budget for education, which one Congressperson has suggested should be at least P1 trillion.
On the health front, the Department of Health (DoH) budget would be increased by P27.9 billion to P296.3 billion. The DoH is, after all, at the forefront of the national effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Significantly, however, the budget of UP’s Philippine General Hospital (PGH), which is both a teaching as well as a major health facility, and the national COVID-19 referral center, would be cut by P893 million.
Similarly defying understanding are the huge cuts in the budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). At P197 billion, the proposed budget for the agency charged with social protection and welfare is P8 billion less than 2022’s P205 billion, which will mean significant cuts in financial assistance to the very poor.
Party-list Representative Arlene Brosas has called attention to the substantial cuts — from 22.64% to 83.9% — in the budgets of the agencies charged with developing Philippine arts and culture and safeguarding its citizens’ historical memory such as the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), the National Archives of the Philippines (NAP), and the National Library of the Philippines (NLP). Rep. Brosas interpreted these cuts as indicative of the Marcos administration’s alleged indifference to history and determination to “conceal the truth from the Filipinos.”
In contrast are the huge increases in the budgets of the Office of the President (OP) and the Office of the Vice-President (OVP). The proposed budget for the latter is P2.292 billion, or more than twice that of then Vice-President Leni Robredo’s Office, which was at P702 million for 2022. The wisdom, or lack of it, of that proposed amount should be evaluated in the context of the fact that the job of the Vice-President is hardly as demanding as that amount implies; and that VP Leni Robredo managed to be pro-actively involved in the anti-pandemic campaign and other advocacies for much less.
The Marcos budget is also proposing — and it breezed through the Lower House in record time — a huge P9-billion budget for President Marcos’ Office, or P1 billion more than that of his predecessor’s. It consists mostly of confidential and intelligence funds which are exempt from Commission on Audit (CoA) oversight. The proposed budget for the OVP also contains millions for “confidential expenses.”
As it is, the 2023 NEP is a study in contradictions. The inevitable conclusion is that Mr. Marcos’ real priorities are the interests of his office and those of his political allies — unless, however, the growing suspicion is true that he has mostly left the governance of this country to the latter and to his appointees while he attends to his personal and familial interests. Among others, those interests seem to include partying, and re-inventing his father’s 14-year dictatorship as the best thing that has ever happened to this country.
Mr. Marcos is again leaving the country this September for New York City, USA, where he may address the United Nations General Assembly. One hopes that what will follow that trip are several months in which he will be in this country and acting as the hands-on President he promised to be during his campaign for that post before he travels again — and further fans speculations that he is going to be, in both the literal and figurative senses, an absentee Chief Executive.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).