The bright side of the DAP

Are you looking for another grim and cynical point of view on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)? This is not one of them.

Here, I opted to look at the bright side – of what the country is gaining from the recent controversy on the DAP. For yes, there is something positive too about what we are going through. And how we can harvest these gains and use them to move forward will spell the difference for reforms in the country.

So what are these bright spots? I could think of at least 6.

1. Through the DAP, we are having an advanced course on the realpolitik of checks and balances.

We know that under the presidential form of government, there are 3 separate and co-equal branches that check and balance each other. Ever wonder why such is the design?

The basic assumption of a presidential form of government is that power advances and accumulates. The tendency of the 3 branches to push the boundaries of their powers is considered a given in a presidential form of government.

In fact, it is precisely because there exists that tendency that the 3 are supposed to be co-equal in powers to be able to check and balance each other. If one branch pushes the limits of its power a bit (and it will if it can because of the sheer nature of power), the logic of the presidential form is that there will be checks to it: the two co-equal branches.

In the case of the DAP, the executive opted to maximize its powers to deliver results fast. The current government mobilized certain provisions in the Administrative Code (Chapter 5, Sections 38 and 49) that allowed it to partake of the power of the purse (otherwise referred to as the power of release or impoundment) by allowing it to stop programs/projects to pool savings (section 39) and use these savings for a wide array of purposes (section 49).

As it stretches its powers, there is an assumption, as per the design of the system, that it will be checked. The other branches, especially the other political branch, have all the mechanisms for it to call the attention of the executive and check its action. The legislature, through its power of oversight and being the ultimate owner of the power of the purse, was expected to do its job and check the executive.

Of course, we know the story. Legislative oversight was nowhere in the picture as the executive flexed its muscle and hence the need for the Supreme Court to intervene.

2. We are seeing accountability advanced and pursued.

Accountability simply means being answerable for one's decisions and actions, getting sanctioned for wrongdoings and ensuring that powers are exercised accordingly in performing one's mandates.

The DAP was made known to the public through the executive itself. As soon as there was a public outcry, the President himself explained its purpose, how it was implemented and its results.

The DAP got terminated by the executive shortly after it was made public amid public pressure and since "it has already served its purpose." The executive had already accounted for at least 91% of its use. The public awaits the accounting of the other 9%.

A policy called "GAA-as-Release-Document" has been adopted to address the delays and corruption involving the release of SARO. Existing transparency and participatory mechanisms that were made operational from the onset under this administration have been bolstered. Responsiveness is a critical component of accountability and we see the executive responding.

While the legislature missed on performing its mandate, the Supreme Court is quick to remedy the situation.

The SC was unhampered in making a decision on the DAP even if the case involved the highest post of the land. The SC ruling is a sign that the judiciary is doing its part in ensuring checks and balances and the other branches are respecting its independence.

This can be appreciated as a sign of the development of our institutions, at least of the powers of the judiciary to check the other two branches.

Now, there are actions and motions to further deliberate on the matter. The question of whether there are legal liabilities is also being raised. The question on whether the decision to create DAP merits an impeachment is also being deliberated. Of course, arguments stating why such questions are downright ridiculous are also being heard.

This is all in pursuit of accountability.

3. There is greater awareness of the immense powers of the presidency.

The inability of the legislature to check DAP is not solely due to the failure of the current Congress. In reality, the Philippine legislature is extremely constrained in performing its mandate because of the current malady in the system, which is due largely to the same legal provisions that created the DAP: Chapter 5 Sections 38 and 49 of the Admin Code. This grants extraordinary powers to the president, which if abused, could seriously undermine the powers of the other branches, leading to a breakdown of checks and balances.

The SC decision has defined what "savings" means and for what it should be used. Funds must first be obligated and the projects/programs must first be accomplished before funds can be considered savings. And absolutely no cross-border.

However, it is vague on whether the application of partial unconstitutionality of DAP stretches to Admin Code Article 5, Sections 38 and 49 (power of release/impoundment powers). These provisions conflict with the definition of savings. If the president can stop projects/programs, that obviously means for discontinued projects/programs, the funds will not be obligated. Can this be considered savings? Can it augment spending enumerated in Admin Code Article 49? If not, then ruling those provisions as unconstitutional or repealing them are in order to avoid this technical malady haunting us again.

4. The importance of ethics in the exercise of power is once again underscored.

Power is part of the reality of the practice of politics and governance. Efforts to acquire, wield, strengthen one’s power is a given.

Power is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. Its intention and end determine whether it is good or bad. This means that to acquire and accumulate power per se is not wrong. In fact, it is a necessity to be able to do something.

But the accumulation of power cannot be without limits. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The usual limitations are prescribed rules and ethics, which are tied to the purpose of why power is needed in the first place: the higher ends. Therefore, power for power's sake is unethical because power is supposed to be with purpose for it to be ethical.

Legal accountability is one, ethics is another. What is legal is not always ethical. What is ethical is not always legal. What exists in the laws and institutional-legal framework is not always right.

It is important to reflect deeply whether the decision to establish the DAP was right and ethical. Was the purpose of the DAP to perform well? Was there no other way to do so? Was the purpose of the DAP to deliver results while reforming governance? Such obviously requires greater power. However, again, could it have been achieved through other means?

5. We are learning more about the difficult work of reforms.

Reform, while an imperative task given – what political analyst Nathan Quimpo describes as a "truncated procedural democracy" we have is a risky and disruptive business. Those who dare to push for it must buckle up for a bumpy ride. You got to have faith and know what and who are deserving of your trust.

This government has done enough for reform and has proven its sincerity to serve the country well to deserve some slack. That's the value of goodwill and trust, which are important too in politics and governance.

As it seems, it's not yet too late for the administration to make up and regain a solid claim to being an effective champion of reforms. We all make mistakes, even reformers.

Reformers are even more particularly prone to mistakes because they dare to introduce reforms in a system built to stay the same. Performing while reforming institutions given weak institutions and with corrupt practices seemingly embedded in its culture is almost mission impossible. As they do, they tend to innovate, push the limits and sometimes resort to shortcuts. It pays at times, it is necessary most often, but sometimes there's a backlash. It is a cross to bear.

6. The DAP could be leading the Daang Matuwid to a better direction

One way to put those immense presidential powers to good use is by championing the passage of the amendment of the Admin Code to avoid another DAP from happening again and being abused. This is one way we can constructively move on from the DAP quagmire. Come out clean, admit the mistake and correct the wrong to move forward.

Better yet, Malacañang, mobilizing the support of its allies in Congress, can support measures that permanently correct anomalies in our system and check the exercise of power more effectively, such as electoral reform measures, a party reform law, an anti-dynasty law and the Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

Such is a comprehensive political reform package that could sustain reforms. If championed by the administration as a response to the DAP controversy, the DAP might even turn into a spark that could pave the way for this administration to, in the nick of time, redirect the Tuwid na Daan. It could be pointed in a direction where the wrongs in our political system are permanently corrected, including our overly-powerful presidency. –

Joy Aceron is program director at Ateneo School of Government, the graduate school of leadership and public service of the Ateneo de Manila University. This article was first published in