'Pork' scam may prompt SC to review ruling
MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) might just take a third look into the constitutionality of pork barrel funds in the light of recent reports about the misuse of the discretionary funds of Congress.
An insider said that while the high court has twice ruled and upheld the constitutionality of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), it could render a new decision should the majority of justices find justiciable issues on the recent petitions filed by losing senatorial bets Samson Alcantara and Greco Belgica.
“There seems to be new issues raised in the new petitions that were not touched during the previous rulings. That’s where the court can take a new ruling from,” a member of the court told The STAR.
But the source refused to go into details since the case is now pending before the high court, and also requested not to be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter.
The insider, however, cited the rulings on Philconsa vs. Enriquez in 1994 and Lawyers Against Monopoly and Poverty (LAMP) vs. Department of Budget and Management just last year, where the SC dismissed petitions seeking to declare PDAF unconstitutional.
In its decision last year, the SC junked LAMP’s petition due to “presumption of validity” on acts of a coequal branch of government.
The high court held that petitioners failed to present evidence that the funds were directly released to the lawmakers and that they may have misused the funds.
“No convincing proof was presented showing that, indeed, there were direct releases of funds to the members of Congress, who actually spend them according to their sole discretion... Devoid of any pertinent evidentiary support that illegal misuse of the PDAF in the form of kickbacks has become a common exercise of unscrupulous members of Congress, the Court cannot indulge the petitioner’s request for rejection of a law which is outwardly legal and capable of lawful enforcement,” reads the unanimous ruling penned by Associate Justice Jose Mendoza.
But in the new petitions, the SC is told of how “the pork barrel system enables the members of Congress to pocket for themselves money which should be spent for public purpose and which are exacted from the people by way of taxes.”
“Here lies the difference. Now there is Napoles and also a COA report,” the insider stressed, apparently pertaining to the evidence related to the alleged scam perpetrated by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and the Commission on Audit report covering alleged irregularities in PDAF use from 2007 to 2009.
Also, the new petitions have again raised the alleged violation of the constitutional separation of powers of the executive and legislative branches of government in the PDAF system.
Both Alcantara and Belgica argued that the system allows the executive to have control over lawmakers.
However, the SC had ruled in the previous case: “Hence, absent a clear showing that an offense to the principle of separation of powers was committed, much less tolerated by both the Legislative and Executive, the Court is constrained to hold that a lawful and regular government budgeting and appropriation process ensued during the enactment and all throughout the implementation of the GAA of 2004.”
As to how the high court would resolve the new petitions against PDAF in relation to recent developments, the insider said it would be “something to look forward to.”
Last Tuesday, the SC directed both the Senate and the House of Representatives to answer Alcantara’s petition by filing a comment within 10 days from receipt of notice.
SC spokesman Theodore Te clarified that the SC’s action does not necessarily mean the high court has already given due course to the petition, especially in relation to the separation of powers of the legislative and judicial branches and the former’s power of the purse.
“Usually, comment is required before the justices decide if they would give due course to the petition,” he explained.
‘Pork’ still exists
Two professors emeritus of the University of the Philippines, meanwhile, maintained that the pork barrel system is still existent despite the move in the House of Representatives to abolish the PDAF.
“What has been abolished is not the pork barrel. They abolished PDAF,” said former National Economic and Development Authority director-general Winnie Monsod during a forum at the UP Diliman campus in Quezon City yesterday.
“I don’t think they’ll be completely erasing the pork barrel,” added Social Watch convenor and former national treasurer Leonor Briones.
Briones and Monsod were reacting to the move in the House to remove PDAF from the 2014 budget and distribute the money among executive agencies such as the Department of Health (DOH), Commission on Higher Education, and the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, vice chairman of the appropriations committee, was quoted as saying in a report yesterday that congressmen will have no discretion on the use of the distributed funds.
But Monsod said the pork barrel system remains in place while congressmen, who were elected to legislate laws, are doing the functions of the executive.
“Why does the money have to come from them?” Monsod said, noting that there are agencies such as the DOH, Department of Education (DepEd), and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
“All they have to do is write (these agencies) and tell them that these are my constituents, please help,” she stressed.
For Briones, PDAF is just a “piglet” and what the government should do is to abolish the “mother pig,” which is the entire P310 billion Special Purpose Fund (SPF) of which the PDAF is part.
Among the items classified under SPFs in the 2014 budget proposal are the Pension and Gratuity Fund (P120.5 billion), Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits (P80.7 million), Budgetary Support to Government Corporations (P46.7 billion), and Allocation to Local Government Units (P19.7 billion).
Briones noted that the pork barrel of lawmakers, amounting to P25.240 billion, is just eight percent of the total amount of the proposed SPF for 2014.
“You have the pork barrel, but you have to think of the source of the pork barrel,” Briones said.
Briones added that abolishing PDAF is a start but there is a need to look into the SPF and off-budget funds, which remittances are not in the General Appropriations Act (GAA).
Supposed off budget funds include the remittances to the Office of the President from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Malampaya Fund, and Motor Vehicles User’s Charge. The government, she said, should include these remittances in the GAA.
Use PDAF in disaster mitigation
Former senator Orlando Mercado, on the other hand, suggested that President Aquino can truly become a transformative chief executive if he would use pork barrel funds in climate change and disaster mitigation projects.
He said that while there is a resolution in the House of Representatives and a consensus among the members of the Senate majority not to use their pork barrel funds, the problem is where to put the P25-billion allocation.
For Mercado, now secretary-general of the Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration, pork barrel funds should be used in climate change adaptation programs and disaster risk reduction.
Citing studies showing the vulnerability of almost all regions in the country to disaster and climate change, the former senator said that it is about time the government consider allocating pork barrel funds to disaster and climate change mitigation projects.
Although there is concern in maintaining the economic growth rate of the Philippines, “who will invest in the country when it is at risk with disasters?” Mercado asked.
“If we will invest more on disaster mitigation and climate adaption we will be encouraging more investments in the future,” he added.
Mercado was senator from 1987 to 1998. He observed that the pork barrel fund of current legislators is bigger than what lawmakers had in the late ’80s.
“They have huge amount of money now and that’s dangerous,” he said, noting that one of the dangers is the imminent loss of check and balance function and loss of focus on their original and primary job as legislators. – Edu Punay, Aurea Calica, Janvic Mateo, Dino Balabo