As I See It

That’s our money they are giving away

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I got a rejoinder to last Friday’s column that criticized the distribution by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile of P1.6 million each to 18 friendly senators, and only P250,000 each to four unfriendly ones. JPE had first termed it a “Christmas gift” to the senators but he later backtracked and said it was an MOOE, initials for maintenance and other operating expenses. Many taxpayers called it a “bribe” because JPE was rumored to be under threat of a Senate “coup” that would replace him as Senate President, an accusation that JPE denied.

The rejoinder (from which I will quote extensively in the interest of fair play) said “no less” than Commission on Audit Chair Grace Pulido Tan had declared the bonanza as “perfectly legal.” In accordance with the Constitution, Tan had said, the General Appropriations Act (GAA) “authorizes not only the Senate President but also the Speaker of the House of Representatives to ‘augment any item in the GAA for their respective offices from any savings in other items of their respective appropriations.’”

It may be legal but is it moral? The senators and congressmen do not need the extra money distributed to them last Christmas. They are already well-off, well-fed, well-paid, well-provided and well-connected. Consider the bad taste of distributing so much money to those who don’t need them when millions of our countrymen are hungry. Millions more not only have no food but also have no homes, no jobs, no future and no hope. The money could have been used to help them.

The rejoinder hit Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago for her exposé on Senate malpractices and critics of the Christmas “gift”—oh all right, MOOE—at the same time quoting friendly senators who said there’s nothing wrong with the releases.

“Is Santiago opening her books to COA investigators too?” the statement asked. Santiago had challenged the COA to audit the disbursement of the MOOE.

“Enrile welcomes any audit by COA, saying that the Senate has always been the object of COA’s review and that his discretionary release of additional MOOE had been standard practice since 1935,” the statement continued.

“The claim that the additional MOOE is a bribe by Enrile so he can keep his post is pure baloney since 12 new senators would be coming in in July as the present Congress closes shop next month and we hold our midterm elections in May,” the statement further said. “Why would Enrile even have the need to court half of the senators who may not even be coming back in July?”

I have my own question: Why release additional maintenance and operating funds when the year is about to end, when Congress is about to adjourn next month?

The statement rants on: “In November, when Enrile gave all of them P600,000 each as additional MOOE, nobody complained. But when Enrile balanced the December MOOE releases by excluding himself, Miriam, Antonio Trillanes, Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano, he was accused of favoritism.

“And not contented with the savings of the Office of the Senate President, some senators even had the gall to ask Enrile whether he could give them savings from his own office as senator,” the statement continued but did not say who those senators were.

“Of course, Enrile had no problem giving all of the senators P250,000 each from his savings as an individual senator because just like all MOOEs, the so-called ‘cash gifts’ are not gifts at all but additional funds to help them fulfill their public service mandate.”

My opinion on that is this: The mandate of senators and congressmen is to enact laws, not to duplicate the functions of the executive department by initiating and funding—with the people’s money—public works projects. The lawmakers’ mandate is merely to enact laws. Read the Constitution.

But why do our legislators want to meddle in the work of the executive branch? Because there is plenty of money to be had from public projects if you only know how. And our members of Congress know how—very well.

The “grandmamma of all scandals,” in the words of Senator Santiago, is the pork barrel, deodorized as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF, the favorite acronym of members of Congress. The PDAF gives each senator P200 million and each congressman P70 million a year of the people’s money for public works projects.

Legislators say the money does not pass through their hands. But it goes to their favorite contractors who kick back some 30 to 50 percent of the contract price to their favorite legislators. That is the reason many public works projects are overpriced and substandard.

After the kickbacks are paid, the contractor has to make do with what is left to finish the project.

The people have been complaining against the pork barrel for decades now, but it is there until now.

“If it was okay then, why is it not okay now?” legislators say. That is the same question asked by the rejoinder from the JPE camp: Why were the earlier MOOE releases accepted but now are called “unconscionable” by some senators?

As I see it, even if it had been done before, it does not make it moral now. It was immoral then and it is immoral now. The taxpayers want to stop it but they are helpless against the cabal of public officials. If they had been unable to stop it then, they still want to stop it now because that is our money being given away.

Besides the pork barrel, there are also the “congressional insertions” in the annual budget. Here, for some appropriations, a provision is inserted to ensure that the implementation and spending for the project are to be controlled by certain senators or congressmen. The latter then funnel the projects to their favorite contractors who then kick back the shares of our “honorable” legislators.

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