Senators, SC justices face off on PDAF TRO
MANILA, Philippines - Senators turned a budget hearing Wednesday into a cross-examination of Supreme Court (SC) justices on their temporary restraining order (TRO) on the release of the remaining P24.79-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) this year.
During the Senate finance committee hearing on the proposed P18.46-billion budget of the judiciary, Senate President Franklin Drilon took the opportunity to grill SC Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta and Marvic Leonen on the TRO.
While saying he would abide by any SC ruling, Drilon noted that the TRO is “an indication that preliminarily, your court has determined that on its face, there is basis to restrain the releases of the PDAF.”
Peralta said the high tribunal always determines the requirements before they issue a TRO, “not only in PDAF, but also in Malampaya funds and other cases that are filed with us.”
“So in effect you are saying that, at least on a temporary basis, there is a prima facie finding that the PDAF is unconstitutional? Just on a temporary basis,” Drilon asked.
To which Peralta replied, “On a preliminary basis, that’s correct.”
Drilon also asked the two justices for “guidance” on some hypothetical situations that may arise if the SC does not come out with a resolution by the end of the year or if it eventually reverses its previous decisions and declares the PDAF as unconstitutional.
He cited PDAF that is used for soft projects such as medical assistance and scholarships. He said the unused amount for such projects is impounded by the executive or no longer made available by the end of the fiscal year.
“If the Supreme Court does not decide by Dec. 31 then you are in effect impounding an item in the budget. The judiciary exercises the power of the executive,” he said.
Leonen said the court recognizes the power of the executive to impound funds, but the high tribunal has the power of judicial review.
When asked if any realignment of the PDAF, whether by the President or Congress, would be invalid while the TRO is in effect, Leonen refused to give his opinion, saying that the SC always rules as a collegial body.
Leonen also told Drilon that the proper way to ask the court is to direct his lawyers to file a motion to clarify before the SC.
Drilon said he is under pressure to interpret the TRO as the leader of the Senate. He said they should also be apprised on what would happen to PDAF releases used for medical assistance in government hospitals.
“What are we supposed to do? We can be cited in contempt. This is not theoretical. This is reality,” Drilon said, adding that their offices regularly receive requests for medical assistance, such as kidney dialysis.
“I did not want to miss this opportunity once a year to reverse the tables, to ask questions (to the Supreme Court). We respect the Supreme Court but we need guidance. This is a matter that affects the lives of people. We want to make sure that when we follow, we follow it correctly. That is why we ask your guidance because you are the gods of Padre Faura,” he said.
But the two justices refused to comment any further.
“Your honor, res ipsa loquitur, the order speaks for itself,” Leonen said.
The Senate and the House of Representatives are deliberating on what to do with the PDAF once it is abolished in the 2014 national budget.
Two options – realigning the estimated P25 billion for the entire Congress to other agencies or delete the entire amount from the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget – are being considered.
P13-B ‘pork’ frozen
Meanwhile, more than P13 billion in pork barrel funds of senators and congressmen will be frozen as a result of the TRO.
As of yesterday, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) website showed that a total of P11.581 billion has been released from the P24.790-billion PDAF.
That leaves a balance of P13.209 billion, the amount covered by the TRO.
Of the P11.581 billion that has been released, P9.904 billion was made available to House members, while P1.677 billion went to senators.
Of the House’s P9.904 billion, P7.997 billion was allocated to district representatives, while P1.908 billion was released to party-list representatives.
Most of the funds were disbursed before the elections last May, with most senators and House members availing themselves of their half-year allotments.
Only five senators – Pia Cayetano, Serge Osmeña, Ramon Revilla Jr., Ralph Recto and Drilon – have not touched their P200-million allocations for this year.
With the SC ruling, the P100-million half-year allocations of six new senators – Juan Edgardo Angara, Joseph Victor Ejercito, Grace Poe, Nancy Binay, Paolo Benigno Aquino, and Cynthia Villar – will be frozen together with the P35-million half-year allotments of more than 60 neophyte House members.
Malampaya fund releases
Malacañang said it would respect and abide by the SC ruling even as the DBM clarified the order does not cover releases of Malampaya funds for “financing energy resource development and exploitation programs and projects of the government.”
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the TRO agrees with the President’s instruction to suspend all releases from this fund while the investigation on the pork barrel scam, of which businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles allegedly operated, is being conducted.
A total of P14.7 billion of the P24.7-billion PDAF this year has not been released since the President ordered the suspension of fund releases.
The TRO also enjoined Malacañang from releasing a portion of Malampaya fund allotted to projects under the discretion of President Aquino.
Abad said the government had also not released allocations under the Malampaya funds to support projects unrelated to energy development or exploitation. He said P335.1 million has so far been released from the Malampaya fund as of Aug. 16 to support the protection and security requirements of the Malampaya gas-to-power project.
‘Speed up deliberations’
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the House of Representatives would comply with the TRO, but asked the high court to speed up its deliberation on petitions seeking to declare the PDAF as unconstitutional.
“A lot of students are waiting for the enrollment fees that will come from this, a lot of other people are relying on it and it is necessary that we are able to give them a complete answer,” he said, referring to scholars and indigent patients who rely on the PDAF.
Belmonte maintained that the PDAF issue is a political question that is “best left to the discretion of Congress.”
“To abolish it 100 percent, to reform it, to do anything with it, it is my position that it is a political question, which under our system of government belongs to the Congress,” he said.
Several congressmen said the TRO was moot and academic as Congress decided to abolish the PDAF and the DBM had put on hold fund releases.
Sept. 13 rally
As this developed, a broad alliance of groups pushing for the abolition of the pork barrel system vowed to sustain protest actions until the PDAF is totally removed from the national budget.
Fr. Joe Dizon, one of the movement’s leaders, said ordinary citizens and taxpayers should keep up the pressure, adding that the TRO should send the message to the President and Congress.
Various groups are set to hold another rally against the pork barrel at Rizal Park tomorrow.
“We are disappointed that until now, no one has been charged with plunder or even plain malversation of funds. It’s been more than two months since the scam was exposed. There are many witnesses and much evidence. What is the DOJ and Ombudsman waiting for?” said Victor Villanueva, spokesman for Youth Act Now and UST Law Student Government president.
Fr. Marlon Lacal, executive director of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, said various congregations are expected to attend the Sept. 13 rally in line with the call of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to support various initiatives to abolish the pork barrel system.
“This is a moral issue involving the fight against corruption. We as church people must take a stand,” he said.
Dubbed “Forward March to #abolishpork,” the rally will start with an ecumenical service at 3 p.m. and end with a Rock and Rage Against the Pork concert at 6 p.m. –With Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Rhodina Villanueva, Michelle Zoleta, Danny Dangcalan