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Hell to pay
By: InterAksyon.com
January 19, 2016 11:27 AM

We sympathize with President Aquino. We really do. His veto of the proposed P2,000 hike in monthly SSS pensions was not without basis, and, as economic and fiscal managers point out, may have been the prudent thing to do. The government and taxpayers will have to find an additional P56-billion per year to cover higher pensions for more than 2 million retirees. The SSS currently only has P40-billion per year to cover prevailing pension rates. Clearly there is a funding gap, and that can only be covered by dipping into the SSS buffer, to the extent that - assuming that nothing is done - those reserves, now good for 26 years, could run dry in 12 instead.

President Aquino says he had no choice. His defenders say the proposed pension hike - put forward by Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Neri Colmenares, and principally sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Cynthia Villar - was in the end a popular but dangerous program: as they frame it, the definition of "populist". The President's men therefore say PNoy did the unpopular but responsible thing: in their mind, the epitome of "leadership". Why - to strike a stern but caring fatherly stance and to deprive us of something that may be wonderful in the short term but that will no doubt be damaging to our household in the long run - is this not in fact "presidential"?

"Justified", "prudent", maybe even "arguably correct". These are gracious enough words to give President Aquino credit and the benefit of the doubt. But for all the debates that will continue for as long as there are retirees living on minimum monthly pensions of P1,200 to P2,400, and for the political fallout that is now left for Daang Matuwid candidates to rake, this entire episode will still only redound - ultimately, again, and precisely - to an object lesson on leadership.

Yes, the President had the courage to decide above political interests - that of Mar Roxas especially. But the price to be paid will not be calculated in billions of pesos nor the years it will take for the SSS reserves to go "bankrupt". (A disingenuous and hyperbolic characterization of what will come to pass, by the way, only if government will do what it has done with the SSS in six years of Daang Matuwid, or in the 19 years since the last real adjustment in pensions under the Ramos administration: Nothing. But we digress.)

It is Daang Matuwid's standard bearer for the May elections that will have hell to pay, not so much for Aquino's prudence, but for the last-minute and in fact retroactive scrambling to explain. Malacanang's plaint to "hear us out" should not turn the tables on the weeping retirees that now refuse to give them a minute’s audience. (They literally can't listen, in any case. They can't afford hearing aids.) If anything, the desperation to get a word in above wailing lolos and lolas indicts the rash that again and again breaks out of the Aquino administration’s skin: symptoms of shortsightedness, insensitivity, a dearth of political savvy, and, as Sen. Antonio Trillanes put it, "lack of management skills and lack of leadership skills."

Many other virtues round out true presidential leadership: not only courage, but also count such gifts as the ability to build consensus, to be circumspect, to have foresight, a sense of strategy, and political will - which means the willingness and skill to play politics.

Funny how the President’s defenders now accuse Colmenares of "playing politics", as if a socialist who actually knows how to work in a House dominated by the bourgeoisie is more frightening than a President who ignores what is happening in his co-equal branches of government until a paper with a deadline lands on his notoriously clean desk.

In the time of President Fidel V. Ramos, the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) was institutionalized as a mechanism for Malacanang and Congress, with representatives from the private sector and civil society, to thresh out legislative agendas. It was set up, in other words, not only to facilitate and practice the art of the compromise, but also precisely to avoid episodes like this.

The law creating it thus requires the LEDAC, chaired by the President of the Republic, to meet at least once every quarter.

PNoy convened the LEDAC twice in 2011 - and then never again.

Just not his style.

We would not presume to change his habits. But the President and his advisers must accept and admit the consequences of their less than dynamic habits. In this case, we may allow that the decision to veto may have been without choice. But the fallout was avoidable.

As a political instrument, the veto has two modes. It exists first as a threat, before it comes down as an act. The threat of a veto is elegantly more powerful than the actual act for two reasons. First, it signals and allows for compromise. Second, it covers your ass in case you have to act.

On the matter of the pension hike, there was never a threat of veto. Just the act of it coming down on the public as if from nowhere.

Sen. Franklin Drilon called the Colmenares-Villar proposal an "early Christmas gift of the Senate to SSS pensioners." Now they're accusing the sponsors of playing politics?

It is one thing for his team to complain that President Aquino was put in a no-win situation. But it was his advisers and partymates, in control of both Houses of Congress, who led and left him in that corner. And he let them.

As to the motives of everyone else, nobody can say that this was about anything other than social justice. Not when septuagenarians living off P2,000-P3,000 a month will need another long lifetime to see what SSS executives receive in bonuses in one year.

Nobody can say that this was about Colmenares running for senator. The original bill was filed in 2011. Nobody can say that there was no sensible discussion about the bill. The original proposal was for a hike of P5,000. You can imagine the debates and outcry over the impossibility of funding that. The final proposal for P2,000 therefore comes imbued with the presumption of debate, and ultimately, evidence of compromise.

How reasonable a compromise? That discussion can go on, ad nauseum and in realtime. But nobody can say that Colmenares almost pulled this off just by talking to himself.

The vote for the Colmenares proposal among congressmen was a nail-biter: 211-0. For such a result, and beyond the socialist's doggedness, keep in mind, too, the presumable leadership and guidance of the Speaker, QC Rep. Feliciano Belmonte, merely a former president of the GSIS.

Meanwhile, the Upper Chamber, voting 15-1, adopted the House version in toto. Only Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is on record as having opposed the bill. Everybody else was onboard: Drilon and every other LP member or administration ally in the Senate.

Why demonize Colmenares for wanting to do the right thing, and for playing so well the game that President Aquino, the Liberal Party, and Team Daang Matuwid should have joined in much earlier?

Blame instead a leadership and council that could have headed off this crisis but that, by some unfathomable complacency, incompetence, negligence to their principals, or all of the above, set everyone up for a sucker punch instead. Even when they're in the right, they set themselves up for a spectacular fall.

Which is why we sympathize with Mar Roxas. We really do. Already run ragged trying to catch up in the surveys with all other presidential aspirants, he is further weighed down by the burden of the incumbent. To voters in May, President Aquino = Daang Matuwid = Jun Abaya = Mamasapano = Traffic = Walang Malasakit = Mar Roxas. Throw the SSS debacle into that equation, and it's no wonder Mar has been nowhere to be ambushed by reporters since Friday.

Maybe there's yet time for some win-win compromise, Aquino and his allies assure. Maybe executive action can spring for a P1,000-adjustment? Maybe P500? Let's put our heads together and maybe we can find a way to let the SSS raise contributions to make up the funding gap?

But wait, weren't all these part of the plan in the first place, Senator Drilon? 

Who's politicking now? Any new bright idea is well and good. Except that nothing is new, save for every occasion to ask: Well, why only now? 

It is because President Aquino did not care about this matter until it was too late for anyone to safely leave the room. Nothing can change that fact. Not even the prospect of being ultimately right. More exasperating, this latest bumbling by Team Daang Matuwid underscores the President's disdain for the kind of politics that get things done. The plain sincere, hardworking, principled one where politicians reach across ideological divides to hammer out compromises that move our lives up and forward, if even by P2,000 a month every two decades.