Suspend, phase out, junk, probe? Pork splits Congress

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The widening scandal involving the graft-ridden Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) has divided legislators on what to do with the pork barrel.

The House minority plans to initiate an inquiry into the alleged channeling of P10 billion in pork to dummy NGOs over the past 10 years.

But the minority is divided on whether the pork barrel should be scrapped.

The militant lawmakers, for instance, cannot say whether they will reject their shares of the PDAF despite their demand to abolish the pork barrel that they have called a “source of corruption.”

In the Senate, six of whose members have been implicated in the scandal, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago wants the PDAF abolished, but not immediately.

Santiago has introduced a resolution calling for the phasing out of the PDAF over three years.

Santiago, chair of the committee on constitutional amendments, also sought an inquiry into the use of the billions of pesos allocated every year to the pork barrel.

Her resolution follows the one filed last week by Sen. Francis Escudero for an investigation of the use of the pork barrel.

“The (PDAF) mess could have been prevented if there is transparency in the way public funds are allocated, released and used,” Santiago said in the resolution she filed on Wednesday.

Half then zero

“The first best solution is to discontinue the pork barrel system by reducing what has been proposed by the President in the 2014 budget for PDAF to zero,” she said.

Under her proposal, the P200-million yearly allocation for senators will be reduced to P100 million in 2014, P50 million in 2016, and zero in 2016.

In the House, the representatives’ P70 million shares will be halved to P35 million in 2014, slashed to P15 million in 2015, and brought down to zero in 2016.

“The constitutional mandate is for Congress to decrease but not increase appropriations as submitted by the President. [With the appropriations for PDAF deleted], the President cannot resurrect it through line item veto,” Santiago said.

No special law needed

“It is important that the full amount be reduced if the legislators are serious [about] abolishing pork in the budget. Reducing the PDAF to even one peso is dangerous, because then the President may choose to augment the peso appropriations with several billions, which is allowed under the Constitution,” she said.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said scrapping the pork barrel would not require the enactment of a special law. All it would take is not to allocate funds for it in the General Appropriations Act, he said.

While the PDAF has considerable benefits to the lawmakers’ constituents, it is perhaps better to let the line agencies do whatever is needed to help, Drilon said.

Santiago said phasing out the PDAF instead of doing away with it outright would give the senators and the representatives time to adjust to the new rules.

“Many of the legislators ran on the assumption that they would have the benefits of pork, presumably as a way of paying for their election expenses,” she said.

Santiago said a representative had constituencies from a defined geographic jurisdiction.

“Many voters, rightly or wrongly, expect their congressman to bring home the bacon to the district in the form of capital projects. Each congressman could do this by availing (himself) of the pork barrel,” she said.

“Yet, congressmen are by and large legislators, not public works contractors. Hence, they should agree to the phase-down of the PDAF,” she added.

For removal

In the House, ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate were asked at a news conference if they would forgo their shares of the P27 billion PDAF in the proposed 2014 national budget, in the event it was made available to them by the Aquino administration.

“Our position is we would have it removed,” Tinio said in Filipino. “We’re not yet open to the possibility that our position would not succeed because we believe that it would succeed.”

“Maybe you think I’m being evasive. No,” he added, claiming that the decision of some legislators to reject their PDAF shares in the past had not “in any way reduced the systematic corruption of the pork barrel.”

House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora admitted that members of his group, which includes the Makabayan bloc of militant legislators, “didn’t have a common position.”

Without naming anyone, Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III criticized his colleagues for “grandstanding.”

“They’re grandstanding simply because they don’t need their PDAF. I don’t like that. At our expense, they’re waiving the privileges that should go to their districts,” he said in the same press conference.

“If they want to waive their PDAF, some of us in the minority will accept [our] PDAF,” Albano said.

Suspend releases

Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza took the floor on Tuesday and called for the suspension of the distribution of PDAF funds amid the investigation of the pork barrel scam.

Earlier, he promised not to accept his PDAF allocation.

“Two hundred billion pesos in PDAF funds could have easily built 10 million homes for the poor, one million classrooms and provide facilities like CT scan, dialysis and MRI equipment to provide the poor a better chance of survival when they are rushed to public hospitals,” Atienza said later in a subsequent statement.

Atienza threw his support behind the investigation being pushed by Zamora “to clear those who are innocent of the charges and punish those who may be guilty.”

Zamora said the resolution calling for the investigation should be ready by Monday.

“We are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths,” he said, noting that the inquiry would not be limited to possible irregularities in the Aquino administration and in the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

“We will try to go as far back as we need to go,” he said.

Ungab covered

Zarate said an investigation should cover Davao Rep. Isidro Ungab, chair of the powerful committee on appropriations and a member of President Aquino’s Liberal Party.

Ungab allegedly funneled P5 million in PDAF funds to a questionable nongovernmental organization.

“That Representative Ungab claimed to have no knowledge of the scam will not and should not automatically exonerate him from these charges. As the appropriations committee chair, the more he should submit himself to an investigation. It is unsettling that he heads the very committee that will push for and defend the existence of the pork barrel in the 2014 national budget,” Zarate said in a statement.

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