Militant lawmakers file bill abolishing pork barrel

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House of Representatives. INQUIRER.net FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—The battle against the pork barrel is shaping up, with militants from the Makabayan bloc formalizing their plea to abolish the system by filing a bill Wednesday that seeks to prevent the government from allocating funds for this, knowing it is an unpopular measure.

House Bill 1535, or “An Act Abolishing the Pork Barrel System by Prohibiting the Allocation and Use of Funds for Such Purpose,” is expected to meet stiff opposition since incoming House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and other lawmakers believe there is no reason to scrap the pork barrel or the priority development assistance fund. Instead, they have pushed for stricter guidelines and more safeguards on the use of the funds that lawmakers can channel to their selected projects.

The pork barrel has been routinely criticized as a tool for corruption, and the brickbats have been amplified with the airing of recent allegations that P10 billion worth of PDAF were channeled to bogus projects through fake non-government organizations.

The militants said the pork barrel system has become “a form of institutionalized patronage and officially tolerated graft and corruption,” and that the public’s disgust at recent allegations should fuel the crusade to abolish it.

ACT Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio said the measure will most likely be met by strong opposition but said they would urge fellow lawmakers to support HB 1535.

“This is where public opinion comes in. We need to hear many sectors and groups taking a stand for the abolition of pork and the dismantling of patronage politics—the religious, academe, professional organizations, workers, farmers. They can exert the pressure that could turn the tide in Congress,” he said.

The Makabayan bloc is composed of five party-list groups in the House of Representatives. Seven lawmakers make up the group in the 16th Congress.

The militant bloc said, “We are confident that the righteous public outrage generated by the sheer magnitude of the plunder allegedly perpetrated through this P10 billion pork barrel scam will provide the momentum needed to move this issue forward.”

In their resolution, the Makabayan lawmakers have proposed that, in the fiscal year 2014, the Office of the President will be prevented from providing a budgetary item or including in the national expenditure program the lump sum allocations for the PDAF or any other budgetary item that would allocate an amount for lawmakers’ soft programs and projects and infrastructure projects.

At present, senators get P200 million a year for their chosen projects, while members of the House of Representatives get P70 million a year.

The Makabayan lawmakers also said the President’s own pork barrel must be abolished. The use of the fees, revenues, and receipts from the exploration or development of energy resources and funds from revenue generating agencies for the President’s Social Fund must be prohibited, they said.

In pushing their proposal, they said that under state policy, public funds must only be used for projects to benefit the people, and not for patronage and traditional politics.

Public office being a public trust, the government must maintain honesty and integrity in the use of the people’s money. It must also implement measures against graft and corruption, they added.

“Government shall ensure that every cent from the public purse is used toward attaining real and comprehensive development, equitable distribution of income and wealth, and a sustained increase in production of goods and services for the benefit of the people, especially the underprivileged—and none for patronage and traditional politics,” they said.

In their explanatory note to the measure, they cited the alleged pork barrel misuse to the tune of P10 billion involving the JLN Corporation.

They said the pork barrel has long been believed to be a massive source of graft and corruption, and that kickbacks were seen as “the cost of doing politics as usual.”

“Severe limitations in validation and auditing, as well as the scope and number of projects involved, have always prevented a thorough and nationwide check of the use of legislative and Presidential pork barrel funds,” they said.

They added that the alleged P10 billion scam has become proof of this, and also showed that the system could no longer be sanitized.

“Contrary to claims by other legislators that more and better safeguards can be implemented to prevent abuse, the current scam proves that the pork barrel system is beyond salvaging and should be abolished,” they said.

Although the measure faces tough adversaries, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate said that they would ask fellow House members for support.

“We will discuss this with our House colleagues and convince them that pork abolition will eventually be for the best interest of our people, especially the poor majority,” he said.

Zarate said they would first talk to “like-minded colleagues.”

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has earlier maintained that congressmen needed their pork barrel to assist their constituents.

Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr. echoed Belmonte, saying, “It (scrapping of the pork barrel) is just untenable given local political dynamics where many district congressmen are judged by their constituency on the pet projects and direct services they give to their constituencies,”

He earlier described the pork barrel to be an “equalizer” for districts that lack funding for certain services.

Baguilat said that scholarships, medical assistance, small infrastructure like day-care centers or water systems were among lawmakers’ projects which were “largely funded by PDAF.”

“What’s perhaps more realistic is to institute more safeguards to ensure that the funds are not malversed. Enforcement of DBM (Department of Budget and Management) regulations is the key,” he said.

Belmonte said that the DBM reduced the PDAF menu “a couple of times during the 15th Congress. It is quite strict now.”

Baguilat said the DBM had earlier reminded House members “that funds can’t be coursed through foundations and NGOs.”

“That’s why the PDAF is channeled to line agencies and LGUs (local government units) who have accounting procedures and COA oversight,” said the Ifugao lawmaker.

He said he was puzzled that there was a “breakdown” of the said system with other House members since all of them knew “this was prohibited under this administration.”

“If it occurred during the GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) era, then that was the protocol before but as far as I know, this was prohibited under this administration,” said Baguilat.

Despite being against the scrapping of lawmakers’ pork barrel funds, Belmonte said that they still “have to continue measures that avoid abuse or fraud.”

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