A Congress addicted to pork? | Inquirer Opinion
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A Congress addicted to pork?

There is more than a hint of hypocrisy in the way the congressional bicameral conference committee tucked in P731.4 billion in unprogrammed funds into the 2024 national budget. This amount is P449.5 billion more than the proposed P281.9 unprogrammed funds before the committee met. This brings the national budget to P6.218 trillion, scandalously more than the amount the Marcos administration asked for.

How can Congress fall into its habit of padding the budget so close to the recent resounding public chorus of disapproval for the proposed confidential funds (CFs) for Sara Duterte as vice president and secretary of education? Heeding this backlash, Congress has happily gone further and decided that it will not grant any CFs for the Office of the Vice President and any civilian office without any national security function.

But in making discretionary funds available to themselves, Congress shows no shame. Are the elections of May 2025 so close that making funds available for political purposes is a matter of political survival?


There is, of course, the usual moral, ethical, and constitutional wiggle room. Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman reasons that the unprogrammed funds will not be released anyway if there are no additional revenues. This appears insensitive and irresponsible in light of the government drowning in deficit spending, where the national debt is over 60 percent of gross domestic product, well beyond the 50 percent that the World Bank recommends. There is such misplaced optimism when such a large portion of the budget is allocated to debt repayment, limiting the government’s ability to fund important areas like education, health care, and social services.


President Marcos acquiesced to the alarming congressional insertion of unprogrammed funds by not vetoing these, acting instead to disapprove portions of the General Appropriations Act dealing with the proposed revolving fund for the Department of Justice and tweaking the administration of the Career Executive Service Board. He should have been more circumspect, considering that the unconstitutionality of his transfer of P125 million in CFs to Sara Duterte in 2022 is being questioned before the Supreme Court.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III and former senator Panfilo Lacson have opposed these unprogrammed funds as unconstitutional. There has not been much outcry, as if only these two gentlemen are all this nation can muster to drive some ethical sense into Congress.

The problem with unprogrammed funds is that, as standby appropriations are set aside for unforeseen circumstances that may arise between budgets, these funds have not undergone the usual appropriations process involving congressional hearings and public scrutiny. Congress inserts specific line items for unprogrammed funds within the budgets of key agencies like the Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Health, Department of Labor and Employment, Commission on Higher Education, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

Over the years, the Commission on Audit (COA) has repeatedly raised concerns about the use of unprogrammed funds, highlighting issues of transparency, accountability, and risk of misuse and waste. In various audit reports, COA cites the absence of definite criteria and limitations for allocating and utilizing unprogrammed funds, rendering them susceptible to subjectivity and personal bias. For instance, COA has observed laxity in monitoring the utilization of unprogrammed funds allocated for disaster response. It also warns that weak internal controls of agencies for managing unprogrammed funds could translate into irregularities and unauthorized disbursements, lack of supporting documents, and unliquidated advances.

Until stricter guidelines, oversight mechanisms, detailed reporting, and public access to information are established for unprogrammed funds, the recourse to unprogrammed funds must remain understood as nothing more than politicians helping themselves to the treasury of the nation.

In 2017, during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte, the underlying appropriations and spending behavior seemed to be the same. Social Watch Philippines observed that in the 2018 national budget, special purpose funds amounted to P524.6 billion, automatic appropriations were P980.8 billion, and unprogrammed funds were P75.3 billion. This meant that only 59 percent of the budget was being publicly deliberated on. In 2014, Leonor Briones made similar observations of the budget under the previous Aquino II administration.


All this suggests that while acronyms relating to the budget have changed, the underlying discretionary behavior of Congress and executive agencies has remained long after the priority development assistance fund, a lump sum allocation fund found in earlier budgets, had been declared unconstitutional in 2013. It seems so clear—members of Congress are hopelessly addicted to pork.


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TAGS: Congress, funds, National budget, pork, pork barrel

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