CANBERRA—The firestorm over the misuse of congressional pork barrel funds has moved toward Malacañang as President Aquino stonewalls against mounting public demand for the abolition of his own huge patronage chest.
The flames of popular protest were stoked after former National Treasurer Leonor Briones denounced the President’s “special purpose funds” (SPF) in the 2014 national budget as the “bigger monster” than the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocated to members of Congress.
Criticizing the budget from a nonpartisan perspective, she pointed out that the SPF, amounting to P449.95 billion, constituted about a fifth of the entire P2.268 trillion-budget proposed for 2014. The PDAF is only about 5.5 percent (or P25.24 billion) of the incoming SPF, according to her. The “entire special purpose fund is under the control of the President,” a pork barrel of his own. “What happens is that the President behaves like Congress,” she continued. “He’s like a little legislature himself,” referring to the practice under which any sitting president is allowed to give away the SPF to agencies and legislators of his choice.
“Whoever is favored by the President, they will just need to see him and he will make all transfers in the budget,” she said. If there is misuse or abuse in the disbursement of public funds, Congress, which appropriates the money for the budget, has no say.
Joseph Rañola, head of the Center for National Budget, told the Inquirer in an interview: Included in the SPF budget for 2014 is the “unprogrammed fund ” worth P139.9 billion, which is more than P22 billion higher than the SPF in the 2013 budget.
A big portion of the SPF for 2014 is allocated to “budgetary support for government corporations,” which amounts to P46.69 billion. The SPF increased from P4.9 billion in 2002 to P24.2 billion in 2010 and P44.6 billion this year, under President Aquino’s watch.
The President has been reported saying that he has suspended the release of congressional pork barrel funds—but not his own special funds—until the investigation by the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation of the diversion of P10 billion from the congressional pork to a group of NGOs controlled by Janet Lim-Napoles, now at large, shall have been completed.
Faced by the growing mass movement initiated by citizens groups demanding the abolition of the pork barrel, the President has defiantly declared he is not cowed by the protest threat and he would not now change his position to retain the PDAF. Instead, he justified it, saying that all this misuse happened during the past administration which, “compared to us had a different policy (on PDAF disbursements).” Apparently, he is standing pat in an effort to avoid a clash with legislators and retain the President’s special funds as a weapon to keep them under control, with his patronage. Palace officials have said the President would leave it to Congress whether or not to abolish the pork barrel. With this action, the President in effect is washing his hands of responsibility for the fund diversion scam, given that a group of five senators and 23 House members gave the Napoles syndicate of NGOs access to their PDAF. He shifts the brunt of public pressure to abolish the pork barrel to lawmakers.
Despite the allegations of misuse of the PDAF, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad has declared that the PDAF would stay in the 2014 budget. He said some P27 billion in PDAF is in the budget. He added that the PDAF stays until there is a decision by the President on the investigation of the funds misused. According to Abad, the PDAF went up from P24.8 billion this year to P27 billion, or by P2.2 billion, next year. The P2.2-billion increase would go to the pork barrel allocations of additional House members whose number has gone up from 202 to 292.
Abad did not say anything about the increase of the President’s special purpose funds.
In an article reported online in InterAksyon.com, Briones discussed three reasons why the 2014 budget is prone to misuse. One reason, special funds don’t go through the same rigorous examination as those allocated to various agencies and departments. In summary, of the total expenditures of P2.268 trillion for 2014, only the budgets of the departments and agencies, totaling P1.162 trillion, have details which can be examined lengthily by Congress.
The balance, a total of P1.106 trillion—including the special purpose funds of P310.047 billion (programmed) and P139.9 billion—doesn’t go through the same rigorous examination as the departments and agencies. This explains why “I consider this budget vulnerable,” Briones said.
“Another source of vulnerability is the fact that the Constitution allows the President to transfer funds in the Office of the President.
“The term ‘office’ has been interpreted to mean the entire national government system, not just the Office of the President.
“The former interpretation has led one leading member of Congress to observe that ‘while Congress has its pork barrel, the president has his beef power,’” Briones said.
The Department of Budget and Management has failed to submit a report on how Malacañang spent its special purpose funds.