Analysis

Aquino heads for collision with Congress

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01:11 AM August 26th, 2013

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By: Amando Doronila, August 26th, 2013 01:11 AM

President Aquino tried to deflect widespread public outrage against the abuse of the congressional pork barrel fund by declaring on national television that “it’s time to abolish” it. He appeared to believe that his declaration would abort the Luneta march. Instead, it had the opposite effect.

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The Aquino administration tried to deflect widespread public outrage against the abuse of the congressional pork barrel fund by declaring on national television on Friday that “it’s time to abolish” the corruption-ridden system.

His announcement failed to halt the planned “Million People March” called by civil society activists for Monday at Manila’s Rizal Park to express indignation against the alleged diversion of P10 billion in Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to a group of questionable nongovernment organizations (NGOs) controlled by Janet Lim-Napoles, with the collusion of five senators and 23 congressmen.

The President appeared to believe that his declaration, reversing his previous resistance to calls for scrapping the pork barrel, would abort the Luneta march. Instead, his somersault had the opposite effect.

It shifted and inflamed public anger toward him. His double-talk on the pork barrel raised the threat of a third people power movement since the 1986 Edsa Revolution that might depose him midway in his six-year term.

Viewed from this context, the President’s ambivalent positions vis-à-vis the pork barrel, there are grounds to question his sincerity and the credibility of his decision to scrap the pork barrel and to believe that when he made his decision, he was prompted by the imperative of regime survival, more than by self-righteous slogans of transparency in governance.

‘Nothing wrong’

In his TV speech, he prevaricated and continued to defend the pork barrel. He said:

“In 1990, what we now know was the PDAF was established for a worthy goal: to enable your representatives to identify projects for your communities that your LGU (local government unit) cannot afford.

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy. But what is wrong—indeed, what has outraged our people—was the collusion among a former president ready to trade favors just to remain in power, legislators and members of the bureaucracy who were willing to conspire, enabled a passive and indifferent citizenry. All these factors put together make the PDAF prone to abuse. We need to make sure the system can no longer be abused.

“There are those who treat the PDAF as their own private fund, to use as they please. This is clearly wrong. What is involved here is the people’s money; it should be used for the benefit of the people, and not for the benefit of a few greedy individuals. The shocking revelations of this misuse—the latest being the COA special report on the 2007-2009 PDAF which was released this past week—are truly scandalous, and so the time has come to do two things.”

Blameless

Note that the above paragraphs painted the administration as immaculate and blameless for the scandals of diversion of pork barrel funds, which came to light only since March following the submission to the Department of Justice (DOJ) of affidavits by former employees of the JLN group of companies (some 20 NGOs). These revealed the diversion of funds, using these NGOS as conduits, to the bank accounts of Napoles.

Note also that the COA report covered the fund releases for 2007-2009, years before the Aquino administration took office in 2010. This timing is suspicious.

Fast forward. The President, in his speech on Friday, said he sought to “exact accountability from those who have abused the system.”

Whom is he singling out? The cohort of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, four other senators and 23 congressmen by the affidavits of whistle-blowers, or those referred to by the COA report, which said that more than P6.156 billion from PDAF allocations of 12 senators and 180 House members went to 82 “questionable” NGOs?

Mr. Aquino’s speech was not clear about the scope of the investigation of the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation in their effort to determine criminal culpability of legislators and officials of the executive department.

Open-ended witch-hunt

This ambiguity has raised fears of an open-ended witch-hunt that would make the government look it has clean hands.

The three-year COA audit, begun in 2010 after the Aquino administration took office, revealed that at least 74 legislators had exceeded their annual PDAF allocations. Will they be covered by the justice department inquiry?

The President’s speech was equally unclear about his second objective: to find a better way to ensure that the public coffers will be spent with only the public’s benefit in mind.

He spoke about creating a “new mechanism” to plug the massive leak of public funds through corruption-riddled conduits. But he did not elaborate on the details of this mechanism.

But the most glaring aspect of these intended reforms that have antagonized the civil society protest movement is his statement that his own Special Purpose Funds (SPF) will remain untouched.

Although he now calls for the abolition of the congressional pork barrel fund, he disputed Senator Enrile’s position that all other lump-sum appropriations of government agencies and offices should also be abolished.

The proposed P2.268-trillion budget for 2014 contains a provision of P7.5 billion as calamity fund and another P1 billion as contingency, which is disposed at the discretion of the President.

This exclusion of the SPF is likely to provoke a confrontation with Congress—which holds the constitutional power of the purse.

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