Shortly after he became Speaker of the House of Representatives in February 2008—his predecessor Joe de Venecia having been removed on orders of then President Gloria Arroyo over the NBN-ZTE scandal—Prospero Nograles, together with Edcel Lagman (who was chair of the House Committee on Appropriations), released a coauthored paper titled “Understanding the Pork Barrel.” It should have been called “In Defense of the Pork Barrel,” because that is exactly what they did.
I bring this up now for three reasons: the first, to point out how, ironically, President Aquino’s statements in defense of the pork barrel—that the legislators know best about what their constituents need; that enough safeguards are in place to prevent corruption—strongly echo what Nograles and Lagman asserted more than five years ago although, of course, their 12-page document goes into greater detail than P-Noy’s statements do. There is also the irony of supposedly bitter political enemies (Nograles and Lagman) in seemingly perfect harmony on the issue of pork barrel, both being allies of President Arroyo at the time.
The second reason is to point out that this praise of the supposedly corruption-free Philippine pork barrel system was being sung in the middle of what we now know—thanks to the recently released Commission on Audit special audit report—as a period (2007-2009) during which all kinds of anomalous/irregular transactions and abuses were taking place.
And the third reason, which will be focused on, is that in large part, the arguments in favor of the pork barrel advanced in the Nograles-Lagman paper are either baseless or unfounded ab initio. Let’s take a look at some of them, with my observations in italics.
The paper starts out by saying that critics of the pork barrel “fail to realize that since the advent of the CDF (Countrywide Development Fund, the name of the pork barrel—scm) in 1990, and the institution of the PDAF in 2000 up to the present, there has been no post-audit report by the Commission on Audit (COA) directly associating any Member of Congress to a serious abuse, misuse and/or infraction in the utilization and implementation of the much-maligned congressional funds.”
That is inaccurate. COA audits did show irregularities in pork barrel projects, but these were hard to detect because not only were they embedded in the audit reports of the various government agencies (e.g., DSWD, DPWH), there were also no attempts made to connect projects to the legislator-proponents. It was only in 2010 that a government-wide performance audit was ordered and that brought all these projects under scrutiny—although we must understand that no “fraud audit” has as yet been undertaken.
This newspaper published an exposé of the CDF anomalies in 1996. And, as we recently learned, the main source of that exposé was a sitting congressman then—Romeo Candazo of Marikina—who explained in detail how the process worked, and who were part of the deal: solons, government agencies, resident COA auditors, among others.
The exposé, and subsequent stories, resulted in public outrage, the promise of “reform” and as we know, the changing of the name of the pork barrel from CDF to PDAF. Does that sound familiar?
The Nograles-Lagman paper also makes much of the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the CDF, and quotes chapter and verse from it, including a passage which it emphasized in bold letters: “The Countrywide Development Fund attempts to make equal the unequal. It is also a recognition that individual members of Congress, far more than the President and their congressional colleagues, are likely to be knowledgeable about the needs of their respective constituents and the priority to be given each project.”
What the authors failed to include is that part of the Supreme Court decision which states unequivocally, and I emphasize: “In short, the proposals and identifications made by the members of Congress are merely recommendatory.” That being the case, how does the P70 million that is currently allotted to each congressperson and P200 million to each senator reconcile with the recommendatory nature of their project proposals/identifications? For that matter, it is difficult to justify how some congressmen are given no funds at all—which obviously must mean that none of the projects they recommended have any priority or relevance to the development of their areas. Which is nonsensical.
Now for the so-called “safeguards” enumerated by Nograles-Lagman: “Now, the utilization of the CDF or PDAF is strictly circumscribed by a shortlist or menu of qualified projects, requirement of utility and relevance, stringent procurement and public bidding procedures, accountable implementing agencies and mandatory post-audit review by the Commission on Audit, among other safeguards.” And more: “for further transparency and accountability” there was to be a congressional website containing “all the projects and programs identified by House Members” and including “the progress status and accomplishment of the progress.”
Does that sound familiar? That was in 2008. And the efficacy of those safeguards has been belied by the recent COA findings. Which is what has prompted P-Noy to now opt for what the authors called, at the end of their paper, “the sinful ‘pork barrel’ of the American mold,” which is essentially a line-item, rather than a lump-sum system.
I wonder what Nograles-Lagman will say about what is essentially a move from the fire into the frying pan? Abolish the pork barrel.