The roiling controversy over President Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program is exactly what Sen. Jinggoy Estrada intended when he took to the Senate floor last week to defend himself against charges that he had benefited from the so-called pork barrel scam. He did not name the DAP; he likely did not know the details behind what he called an after-the-fact “incentive” of P50 million “allotted” to each senator who voted for the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona. But what he said was enough to start a shift in the public discussion over pork.
Still, let us not be misled. The most important task in the short term is to pursue justice in the pork barrel scam: to end the elaborate scheme to divert billions of pesos in government funds to ghost projects through ghost organizations, by jailing the operators and politicians who perpetrated the scheme. The long-term objective is to end a thoroughgoing culture of political patronage. The latter can be done, but only if the former is first achieved.
The dramatic statements from Estrada, and now from Senators Joker Arroyo and Miriam Defensor-Santiago about the DAP, have complicated the pork barrel issue. The public can still follow the now-convoluted narrative, but with at least three major politicians already charged at the Office of the Ombudsman for involvement in the scam, we must all be on guard against deliberate attempts to confuse the issue.
Necessary distinctions must be made. The pork barrel system must go—even if some of the pork went to vital or much-needed projects. Congressional pork is wrong in itself: Even the most vigorous defense offered by lawmakers implicated in the scam suggests they felt no responsibility for the outcome of the projects they helped fund. The practice of lump-sum appropriations at the Executive’s control must end—even if it is the responsibility of the Executive to choose, implement and fund projects.
More: The pork barrel system exposed by the revelations about Janet Lim-Napoles’ laundering operation for the Priority Development Assistance Fund, conducted with the active participation of a considerable number of lawmakers, including allegedly that of “Sexy,” an apparent code name for Estrada, can be brought to an end only with both operators and conniving politicians in jail. Removing the PDAF from the General Appropriations Act is a good first step, but hardly enough. Narrowing the scope for congressional participation in the Executive’s project-naming and -funding process may have seemed like a good idea in the week before the Million People March; it looks seriously inadequate today. As long as the powerful politicians who enabled the network that the likes of Napoles are alleged to have built are not convicted on corruption charges, pork-enabled corruption will remain very much a possibility.
This is why the short-term objective of finding justice in the pork barrel scam must be met, before the more important long-term goal of ending political patronage can be achieved.
But what about the DAP? Isn’t this new program unconstitutional, as Arroyo asserts? Budget Secretary Butch Abad must make a full accounting when he returns from overseas. But the information available—the fact that an announcement was made in 2011, that the projects Arroyo requested funding for (the money for which came out of the DAP) are aboveboard, that Malacañang has identified specific constitutional and statutory warrants for the program, and so on—does not suggest either unconstitutionality or corruption.
Indeed, Estrada merely implied that the DAP-funded allotment was an incentive, not a bribe. It was Arroyo, who was resolutely silent on corruption issues against the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, who called it one—proof, again, that lawmakers have no business recommending funding for projects, no matter how laudable. Apparently, Arroyo did not bother to find out where the money for his special projects came from, as long as he knew where it was going.
But it is the ghost in the system that should serve as our benchmark, for knowing whether corruption took place. If the money from a lump-sum appropriation went to a good cause, we can welcome the outcome while rejecting the process from now on.
But if the money went to ghost projects or through ghost organizations, then the implication is clear: Corruption took place, and the corrupt must face justice.
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