Palace admits pork still around; Congress balks at abolition
Malacañang on Friday conceded Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s point that only an act of Congress (or a Supreme Court ruling) can abolish the congressional pork barrel and even admitted that the creature was still lurking about in the national budget, waiting to be chopped.
President Benigno Aquino III himself recognized that only Congress can modify a law, including the General Appropriations Act (GAA), the budget law that contains the legislators’ pork entitlements, or the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Friday.
“Of course, the Supreme Court justice is correct because the PDAF, as far as it is embodied in the General Appropriations Act, is law and only Congress can repeal or amend or modify a law,” Valte said at a press briefing.
During oral arguments at the Supreme Court last Thursday on petitions to declare the PDAF unconstitutional, Carpio lectured Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, saying the President had no power to scrap the lump sum fund, as this power lay with the Congress or the high court.
Valte admitted that since budget deliberations were still going on in both chambers of Congress, lawmakers had yet to delete the PDAF item from the budget.
“We are working with them on how to make that [abolition] happen,” she said.
Congress balks at abolition
However, the Senate and House leadership seems to be balking at a total abolition of the pork barrel system through legislation as demanded by an angry public, preferring to suspend it on a yearly basis.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte on Friday refused to be pinned down on the issue of permanently abolishing the pork barrel.
Reacting to Carpio’s dictum that the pork barrel can only be abolished either through an act of Congress or a ruling by the Supreme Court, Drilon said the Senate intended to eliminate the PDAF in the budget deliberations but on a yearly basis. He did not give a reason for saying so.
Moreover, he said “there was no need for a special law to abolish the PDAF as an item in the GAA,” as the PDAF can be eliminated if the President decides not to include it in the proposed budget or if Congress itself excised the item from the GAA.
Drilon said the President has two more options to take the pork out of the budget—Mr. Aquino could exercise his power of line of veto or fully or partially impound the release of any item in the GAA, including the PDAF.
‘Pork does not exist’
Belmonte, meanwhile, maintained that “pork does not exist outside of the GAA.” He claimed the House has done away with pork, in its fashion, in the 2014 budget, which it has passed on second reading.
“Any infrastructure line-itemed in the GAA and therefore determined before the GAA is approved and in accordance with the legislative process, this is not pork,” he said.
Asked why Congress did not want to make the abolition more permanent, Belmonte said: “Post-GAA determination by the legislator is verboten. Let’s look forward. I think everyone will get to accept it as a fact of life.”
The President, following his announcement of the “abolition” of the PDAF on Aug. 23, widely believed to be an attempt to head off the antipork Million People March at Manila’s Rizal Park on Aug. 26, directed Drilon and Belmonte to devise a “mechanism” by which PDAF could be itemized in the proposed P2.268-trillion 2014 budget.
Budget officials, however, said the total PDAF allocation in the 2014 budget would be retained, as this had been programmed for social services and infrastructure. The PDAF would only be totally scrapped in the 2015 budget, they said.
Last month, the House agreed to realign the P25.2-billion PDAF with the Department of Education, Commission on Higher Education, Department of Health, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and Department of Public Works and Highways.
But lawmakers will still be allowed to refer beneficiaries of scholarships, medical assistance and other programs to the line departments. And they can still propose infrastructure projects but they have to identify them early for inclusion in the budget as a line item.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said lawmakers would still be able to exercise some form of control and discretion over the funds.
Policy statement only
Pressed to say categorically whether or not the PDAF had been scrapped, Valte said that when Mr. Aquino announced the pork barrel’s abolition last Aug. 23, he was making a “policy” statement “because, legally, PDAF is part of the GAA, which is a law.”
She said the President forthwith suspended the releases of PDAF in the 2013 budget but sought Congress’ support in deleting the item from the 2014 budget.
“When the President made that announcement, he was saying that we are going to work with Congress on how to go about this particularly because the abolition relies on the repeal or the noninclusion in the next year,” she said.
When he tasked Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to work with Congress leaders toward abolishing pork barrel, Mr. Aquino recognized that the “power to amend, to modify or to repeal a particular law belongs to Congress,” Valte said.
She also clarified that the executive department was seeking the lifting of the Supreme Court temporary restraining order (TRO) on PDAF releases in the 2013 budget and was working for its abolition in the 2014 budget.
“Let’s not mix these up,” she said, pointing out that Jardeleza was arguing for the partial lifting of PDAF releases for scholars and indigent patients in congressional districts.
While lecturing Jardeleza, Carpio said it was irreconcilable for Malacañang to seek the lifting of the TRO on the 2013 PDAF releases while claiming that the PDAF in the 2014 budget had been abolished.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said that it should be left to the high court to decide the abolition of the pork barrel by coming up with a ruling declaring it unconstitutional.
Sen. Ralph Recto, who said many senators had said they were for the abolition of the pork barrel, believed the best alternative to a complete abolition of pork was to enforce a purely line-item budget “as far as practicable.”
“More transparent, quicker implementation, easier monitoring and less discretion. Overall, a better budget,” he said.
Senate has yet to decide
The Senate is expected to decide what to do with the PDAF after Congress resumes sessions on Monday following a two-week recess.
“Hopefully, my resolution to abolish the pork barrel was referred to the committee on rules,” said Sen. Francis Escudero, chair of the finance committee.
“But if it is not acted upon [in the rules panel], the committee on finance will have to decide on it. Whether through a caucus or an open vote in plenary, it has to be decided one way or the other before we approve the budget for 2014,” Escudero said.
At least 15 senators have indicated their agreement with the idea of abolishing the PDAF after P10 billion in pork barrel funds found their way between 2007 and 2009 to the fake nongovernment organizations of alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
The senators, however, have yet to reach a consensus on whether the PDAF allocation in the proposed 2014 budget will be stricken off altogether or will be realigned to a few government agencies the way the House of Representatives did.
The House passed its version of the GAA for 2014 before Congress went on recess towards the end of September.
“The Senate has committed itself to pass the 2014 national budget on time,” Drilon said.
On the Senate blue ribbon committee investigation on the pork barrel scam, Drilon said the Senate is expected to hold a caucus on Monday to discuss the question on whether a subpoena should be issued to Napoles.
Blue ribbon committee chair Sen. Teofisto Guingona III issued a subpoena for Napoles to appear before the panel but Drilon refused to sign the document, citing an opinion by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales that Napoles’ appearance would not be advisable at this time. The plunder charges against Napoles remain pending in the Office of the Ombudsman. With a report from Norman Bordadora
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.