MANILA, Philippines – “Bakit ang yaman-yaman ng mga senador? Tingnan natin magkano ba talaga ang kinikita at inuuwi ng senador. I think it will be a blockbuster!”
(Why are senators so rich? Let’s find out how much a senator really earns and takes home.)
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago proposed an amendment to the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, requiring all public officials to disclose all the sources of their income each month. The senator called her amendment a “carjack issue.”
The senator made a comeback to the Senate floor on Monday, January 27, to interpellate FOI bill sponsor Senator Grace Poe on the measure.
During her interpellation, Santiago alluded to the controversy over the so-called Christmas bonuses or additional Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) that then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile gave his favored colleagues in December 2012.
Santiago was one of the 4 Enrile critics who did not receive the additional funds.
“Why don’t we disclose our income and salaries to the public? So people will know how much we’re actually receiving. And during election time, people will know whether the person has the qualifications of a certain candidate that deserves to receive that kind of a salary.”
“Anyway, let’s get rid of all these whispering and innuendoes about the income of senators, congressmen, Cabinet members, heads of government corporations. Even our Christmas bonuses, let’s call them Christmas bonuses instead of additional MOOE. That is mental dishonesty.”
Santiago and Enrile are bitter rivals, and blasted each other in separate privilege speeches in November and December 2013.
In response, Enrile said after the session, “Okay lang, wala namang tinatago doon. We can even check the income tax of senators.” (It’s okay. We are not hiding anything.)
Santiago explained that an official’s salary is different from his or her total income because senators, for example, have other sources of remuneration like allowances and MOOE if they head committees or are members of certain panels. (READ: How much does a senator earn?)
In an interview after the session, Santiago said senators actually earn a total of P1.5 million a month, a far cry from their P90,000 monthly salary.
“My chief of staff receives almost P80,000 a month. Would you believe that P10,000 only separates me from my chief of staff? Of course not! That’s because I have so many other sources of legitimate income provided by my own agency. So let the public in. Let’s allow the sunlight to penetrate these dark recesses.”
(Does that mean there’s only a P10,000 difference between our income and that of our employee? We earn more because we have allowances that the public doesn’t know about.)
She also cited the case of officials’ discretionary and intelligence funds, which were only liquidated by “sheer signature.”
“That explains why that is the system. The flipside is the public never knows if you’re just stealing the funds and just signing papers or not. That is why we need to incorporate this into a law. If that is my only achievement for all of my 3 years as a senator, I would have considered that sufficient!”
To ensure honesty, Santiago said the documents need not be sourced from the officials but agencies like the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Civil Service Commission (CSC).
“They do have it but they just don’t want to tell us how much. You will be shocked, I promise you. This will be a carjack issue!”
Poe said she was amenable to Santiago’s proposal. “It’s important since we are receiving public funds, it should be part of disclosure.”
The FOI bill aims to institutionalize the right to know and policy of public disclosure enshrined in the Constitution by providing a system for ordinary citizens to access government documents and information.
It is under deliberation in the Senate plenary and is expected to be passed in the chamber by March.
Presidential communications, private contractors
Santiago also asked Poe to reconcile the FOI bill with the Constitution, the Data Privacy Act and other laws.
She cited “presidential privilege,” one of the exceptions to disclosing information. She said in the case of United States versus Nixon, the US Supreme Court upheld that the confidentiality of presidential communications is derived from the separation of powers.
Santiago said, “Under this bill, it appears that Congress is limiting the presidential communication privilege through section 7(B). If so, does this violate the separation of powers?”
Poe responded, “We are not removing the power of the President. We enumerate exceptions by which the President can invoke [confidentiality]. These are protected.”
Santiago also asked Poe why the FOI bill covers private entities “that act as public service contractors.”
The constitutional law expert said that the provision may run counter to other laws like the Philippine Mining Act, which requires the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to maintain the confidentiality of information supplied by contractors.
Poe said, “What we’re proposing is if the company enters into a government agreement, they should provide minimum information to qualify for the contract. For example, the list of suppliers, cost of materials … so we don’t have to ask for this information. It will automatically be provided.”
Santiago the sponsor to clarify these issues when she formalizes her suggestions in the period of amendments. Poe agreed to her request.
Santiago also stressed the importance of making the information user-friendly, and using clear language.
“For example, budget spreadsheets scanned as pictures and uploaded as PDF files at best hinder and at worst disallow the public from the analysis of the numeric values of the spreadsheet.”
Santiago suggested that the bill use as reference the booklet Elements of Sytle by Strunk and White as a guide for “plain language” in government.
‘Sex goddess of Senate’
This is only the second time Santiago attended a Senate session since the start of the 16th Congress in July 2013 as she is suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. The first was when she delivered her scathing speech against Enrile in December.
During the interpellation, the usually fiery senator asked questions calmly and jokingly to Poe. “I feel very maternal to you. I have to look for fire to be ignited.”
The neophyte senator repeatedly complimented Santiago as the Senate’s resident constitutional law expert.
Santiago said this made her feel uncomfortable.
She quipped, “I want to be referred to as the resident sex goddess of Senate.” – Rappler.com