President Benigno Aquino III’s decision to abolish the corruption-ridden Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) does not mean sudden death for the pork barrel.
Clarifying the President’s announcement on Friday, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said on Friday that the P25.2-billion allocation for the PDAF would stay in the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for next year.
But the use of the pork barrel in the 2014 budget would be subject to the guidelines and limitations laid down by the President, Abad said.
Interviewed by state-run Radyo ng Bayan, Abad explained at length why it was not logical to wipe out any trace of the P25.2 billion PDAF from next year’s budget.
He said that since the amount had been proposed, this could still be allocated to “legitimate beneficiaries” such as government scholars, indigent patients, and fund the construction of rural or barangay health centers and police precincts, among other projects that have not been included in the budgetary allocations for departments under the executive.
Abad said he would be working with Congress for a new mechanism or “process” that taxpayers could trust would observe utmost transparency in identifying and funding projects.
Abad made it clear that the lump-sum amount would now be subject to line-item budgeting in the interest of “transparency” and to eliminate “arbitrariness” on the part of lawmakers, which had made the PDAF prone to abuse.
Asked by phone whether Congress would just flesh out the pork barrel’s use since the amount allotted for the PDAF in next year’s budget had already been proposed by Malacañang, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said, “That’s right.”
Contacted separately, Abad said, “Line-item budgeting begins in 2014, not 2015.”
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the President was clear about the abolition of the PDAF in the 2014 budget.
But that only meant that the lump-sum appropriation for the PDAF “is no longer there.”
Abad, however, said that the full amount of P25.2 billion—even if itemized in the budget—may not be fully used by the lawmakers.
“That I need to clarify with both the House and the Senate. Some senators and representatives already declared that they would not use their allocations. So we may not need to use up the whole of P25.2 billion, that is, if they keep their word,” Abad said in a text message.
The President’s announcement on Friday created confusion, with many people understanding the abolition of the PDAF as the end of the pork barrel.
But the lack of resistance from legislators, who had staunchly stood for the preservation of the PDAF until Friday, indicated that the pork barrel was not really being taken away from them but being reformed to eliminate corruption, such as the channeling of P10 billion in pork through bogus nongovernment organizations (NGOs) allegedly set up by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
The scandal caused by the discovery of Napoles’ alleged racket led to a public clamor for the abolition of the PDAF. President Aquino decided to retain the PDAF in the budget for next year, but the announcement of plans for a Million People March against the pork barrel made him modify his stand.
In his nationally televised announcement on Friday, Mr. Aquino said he had directed Belmonte and Senate President Franklin Drilon to devise a new “mechanism” by which the needs of constituents could be dealt with “in a manner that is transparent, methodical and rational” and “not susceptible” to abuse.
That is line-item budgeting under which lawmakers can still propose projects and allocate funds for development through direct earmarks during deliberations on the budget.
The result of direct earmarking is pork, but it will no longer be officially called PDAF. No more funds will be disbursed through NGOs, eliminating kickbacks. And projects will have to go through competitive bidding, making them transparent.
The requirement for competitive bidding and the elimination of NGOs would prevent a repeat of the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
Belmonte on Friday called on members of the House to forget NGOs, “graciously accept” the abolition of the PDAF, and begin listing down their projects for discussion during the deliberations on next year’s budget.
The 2014 national budget, submitted to Congress by the President on July 23, is being scrutinized by the House.
The Senate will start its own budget hearings next week.
Power of the purse
Abad, a former representative of Batanes in the House, invoked the Constitution when asked by the Inquirer why lawmakers could not just focus on lawmaking, leaving the identification and implementation of projects to government agencies and local governments.
Abad said Congress held the power of the purse, and was constitutionally mandated to scrutinize the budget.
“Lawmaking is a function of Congress. An important function of Congress besides making laws is what we call the power of the purse. We can’t remove from the lawmakers the power to scrutinize the budget and make sure that that budget is a budget aligned with the priorities of the government,” he said.
“Because once you remove that power from them, what will, who will, fulfill that function? What we should watch out for is the meddling (of lawmakers) that distort the budget,” he said.
Abad cited, for instance, the discretion of lawmakers, under the PDAF system, to identify the projects and the implementing agency or the NGO that destroyed budget transparency.
He noted that in the past, the budget could be still be tinkered with even after it had been passed by Congress, and that the discretion of lawmakers in the implementation stage was “the issue” at hand.
Abad said the public should be wary of the conduit agency and uncanny mechanism to have the projects of lawmakers funded from the PDAF.
“The problem is there is now doubts about the exercise of this power because of the issues now coming out involving the PDAF. So we question the power of Congress to scrutinize and tinker with the budget,” he said.
“(But) that’s how it’s written in the Constitution, it’s their obligation, that’s their responsibility. Now, if they are using that for their own benefit, that’s a different story,” he said.
The abolition of the PDAF and its replacement with another process will allow President Aquino to exercise even greater power under the current budget process, according to former National Treasurer Leonor Briones.
“It will now consolidate all power exclusively under the President,” Briones said in a phone interview on Saturday.
“It will not cure the original sin,” she said, referring to Congress’ “approving authority” on the national budget.
“If you’re the approving authority, you should have no pecuniary interest in what you’re going to approve,” she said.
Briones noted that the budget is often described as the “President’s budget,” owing to the immense power he exercises over it.
She said the setup was a throwback to the martial law years when then President Ferdinand Marcos sought to control the budget.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said the new “mechanism” the President had in mind would “centralize” lump-sum appropriations—pork barrel included—under his authority.
“It will just make him even more powerful while still promoting political patronage,” he said in a separate interview.
Colmenares said the planned “itemized” pork barrel would still encourage members of the House to “line up before the President if they want to get their share.”
“The demand of the people is to abolish pork barrel and it has not waned,” he said, maintaining that his group would join the Million People March against pork barrel in Luneta tomorrow.
The P25.2-billion PDAF in question is part of nearly P450 billion in “special purpose funds” (SPF) in the budget for next year.
Briones said the SPF was a form of pork barrel because its items could be released only with the approval of the President.
Minus some P310 billion in “unprogrammed fund” and around P25 billion in pork, the SPF would still be left with more than P200 billion the disposal of which would be entirely at Mr. Aquino’s discretion, she said.
“The pork barrel is inherently anomalous because it promotes patronage politics,” Colmenares said.
“You can’t regulate patronage politics because you can’t tell your allies that they can’t have their pork at your discretion,” he said.
Lead by example
Opposition senators want President Aquino to lead by example and abolish the executive branch’s own pork barrel as well.
Sen. JV Ejercito, chair of the Senate committee on economic affairs, said Mr. Aquino should scrap the SPF, “commonly known as the presidential fund.”
Ejercito also called for the abolition of similar lump-sum funds sourced from the revenue of some government agencies or government-owned or controlled corporations.
Understanding that the pork barrel would really be abolished, Ejercito said all funds that would be freed through the abolition of the PDAF should be realigned to the local governments for school buildings and housing projects.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said it was up to President Aquino whether to abolish his own pork barrel.
“That’s the discretion of the President. He knows what to do,” Estrada said.
“Because of the scam that started in the Congress, perhaps it’s much better to abolish the PDAF. If we find certain anomalies in the executive, maybe that will be the time to abolish [its pork barrel]. If they are prudent, I think there’s no need,” he said.
Can’t be selective
Sen. Gregorio Honasan said that instead of giving pork to the three branches of government, the government should shift to line-item budgeting where every project is identified, monitored and well-accounted for.
“I’m just saying that as a matter of principle, we cannot be selective in abolishing the pork barrel. If you abolish that of Congress, you also have to abolish those of the other departments, which have their own version of the pork barrel,” Honasan said.
Drilon lauded the President’s decision to abolish the PDAF.
“The decision to abolish the PDAF is a step that will free the poor from the shackles of political debt and patronage, which had been the practice of corrupt politicians who would do everything to perpetuate themselves in power,” Drilon said. With reports from Christian Esguerra and Norman Bordadora
First posted 8:26 pm | Saturday, August 24th, 2013