Lawmakers grill Abad on ‘pork’ in budget

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The alleged pork barrel scam on Wednesday cast a dark cloud over the House of Representatives, which began deliberations on the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for next year.

Caught in the eye of the storm was Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who walked members of the committee on appropriations through highlights of the administration’s new “performance-informed budget.”

ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio confronted Abad over the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) in the proposed national budget, including a purported P400-million “pork barrel” for the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda). The pork barrel is officially called PDAF.

During the budget hearing, Tinio asked Abad if the administration was in favor of keeping or abolishing the pork barrel, saying “retaining PDAF at this point would be incompatible with (the administration’s) daang matuwid (straight path).”

Abad later turned the tables on the militant congressman and told the committee: “Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to abolish or continue on with the PDAF rests with you, with the House of Representatives. So, I think it’s better for us to await the wisdom of this chamber and proceed accordingly, Mr. Chairman.”

Taking his cue from Aquino, Abad added: “The President, he feels that the greater majority of legislators, who have been using their PDAF rather prudently and well, should not be punished for the possible infraction committed by some.”

Tinio also questioned an alleged pork barrel allocation for Neda, which was included in the proposed national budget under “special purpose funds.”

Turning to Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, he said: “Congratulations, Mr. Balisacan. You now have a P400-million pork barrel.”

Balisacan’s face registered no reaction, but he later explained that the amount was intended for “feasibility studies” to be presented to “different funding agencies.”

Abad told reporters it was “unfair” to label the allocation as pork barrel, noting that the government was unable “to put together feasibility studies that can guide and implement those big projects.”

The head of the appropriations committee, Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, was earlier implicated in the alleged pork barrel scam. But he maintained that the allegation would not affect his committee’s deliberations on the budget.

“My conscience is clear and I know not a single centavo was lost. All projects were implemented. I’ll present [all documents] in the proper forum,” Ungab told reporters during a break in the budget presentation.

“[The PDAF scandal] looms over the discussion and people are awaiting the results of the investigation. Subsequent to that, the executive, through the President, as well as Congress will take action [based on] those findings,” Abad said in a separate interview.

Five senators and 23 members of the House have been reported to have funneled P10 billion of their PDAF in 10 years to a network of bogus nongovernment organizations reportedly set up by Janet Lim-Napoles. The National Bureau of Investigation is looking into the alleged scam in which lawmakers reportedly pocketed up to 60 percent of the public funds.

Aquino’s pork barrel

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares called attention to President Aquino’s own pork barrel, citing a Department of Budget Management (DBM) circular that supposedly allowed Malacañang to “realign” unspent PDAF for projects, including those “not even considered in the (national) budget.”

“The other issue here is why focus on Congress? There is a presidential pork barrel,” Colmenares said in a press conference.

Colmenares and other members of the militant Makabayan bloc earlier filed a measure seeking to abolish the entire pork barrel system. Stung by criticism for accepting PDAF allocations in the past, the bloc promised not to touch its pork barrel this year.

Based on DBM documents, five former and current Makabayan members of the House received at least P481 million in combined PDAF since Aquino took office in 2010.

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