Lawmakers grumbling over pork lossBy Christian V. Esguerra |Philippine Daily Inquirer
Two senior administration members of the House of Representatives on Thursday grumbled over the chamber leadership’s move to abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
Deputy Speaker Sergio Apostol and Davao Oriental Rep. Thelma Almario brought up the matter while questioning Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson during the House budget hearing.
Apostol first asked how congressmen could get a share of the road users’ tax, whose proceeds were estimated at P12.7 billion a year.
Told that the distribution of the fund follows a certain mechanism and that P10 million to P20 million was usually set aside for each congressional district, Apostol said the amount was small.
“We’re asking for that because our PDAF was removed,” he said, with a bit of sarcasm.
Signing with condition
Lawmakers who signed the House majority statement abolishing the PDAF made it clear that they had done so under the condition that the controversial pork barrel would not be resurrected under a different item or name.
“If we say abolish, it should be abolished,” Antipolo Rep. Roberto Puno, head of the National Unity Party (NUP), told the Inquirer, recalling the concern raised by some of his colleagues during the majority caucus presided over by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. on Monday.
At the budget hearing, Almario later asked if the Department of Public Works and Highways could put up “center islands” in a major road in her district.
Singson cited a study showing that obstructions, including islands, were the main causes of road accidents.
Almario said many accidents were recorded because of motorcycle riders zigzagging along the road and occupying the opposite lane.
She said she raised the matter because she often received text messages in the morning asking for money for hospitalization.
“We don’t have PDAF anymore,” she said.
Puno said he and other NUP legislators were concerned that the House would risk infuriating the public if they kept the PDAF using a different label.
“The people will get more angry,” he said in a phone interview.
Filipinos have called for the scrapping not only of the PDAF but also of the pork barrel system following a series of Inquirer reports that businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles funneled P10 billion in the PDAF of five senators and 23 House members over the past 10 years into fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs). In exchange, the lawmakers got hefty kickbacks.
Western Samar Rep. Mel Senen Sarmiento, Liberal Party secretary general, agreed that the PDAF would be taken out for good in the national budget.
“It will now be up to the executive department to farm out the PDAF allocation to make sure it would get to its intended beneficiaries,” Sarmiento said in a separate interview.
Senators are allocated P200 million in PDAF annually and members of the House, P70 million.
Sarmiento, whose party initiated the anti-PDAF statement in the lower chamber, acknowledged that a number of congressmen had expressed “concerns” over the fate of constituents receiving scholarship and health benefits from the existing pork barrel system.
“Right now, the consensus is to abolish PDAF,” he said. “It’s OK. I’ll be very happy to let go [of my allocation] so long as the needs of our poor people, especially those from the provinces, will be addressed.”
Sarmiento cited instances when indigent patients from the provinces complained about not being accommodated in specialty hospitals in Metro Manila.
He said the move to abolish the PDAF should also not mean that existing scholars would no longer enjoy educational benefits.
“They should not become a collateral damage just because of this Janet Napoles issue,” he said, referring to the detained businesswoman, the alleged brains behind the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
Puno said the majority of the NUP’s 31 members in the House attended its “consultation” meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the proposed majority statement abolishing the PDAF.
The statement asks the House committee on appropriations to remove the P25-billion PDAF allocation in the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for next year.
Puno said a number of his colleagues had raised “some issues,” such as the fate of scholarship and medical assistance programs currently funded under the PDAF.
“We will now leave it to the executive branch, to the line agencies to handle,” he said. “We’ll give it a try.”
Several whistle-blowers, former employees of Napoles and heads of the fake NGOs, said kickbacks of lawmakers accounted for up to 65 percent of the project cost.
A Commission on Audit report confirmed the involvement of the Napoles NGOs in the misuse of the PDAF.
Amid the public outrage, President Aquino announced on Aug. 23, or three days before the Million People March against the PDAF at Manila’s Rizal Park, that he was scrapping the PDAF but not the pork barrel system.
The President said the pork would become line items in the national budget where lawmakers could specify the projects. His announcement did not mollify the public.