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Commentary

SC decision restores normal constitutional order

As early as 1994, the constitutionality of the pork barrel, then called the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), was challenged on the ground of violation of the rule that, although appropriating money is the function of Congress, spending it is the prerogative of the executive branch.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the CDF. It said that what the law allowed members of Congress to do was simply to recommend projects. If the recommended projects qualified for funding under the CDF, it was the President who would implement them.

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Prior to the approval of the 1994 General Appropriations Act (GAA), pork barrel, which was recognized by the 1935 Constitution as a legitimate institution, had not received much attention. In the years from 1972 to 1986, there was no talk about pork barrel. But those were unusual years because, for all practical purposes, President Ferdinand Marcos controlled the national treasury, both pork and beef.

After the restoration of democratic processes and in the years from 1986 to 1993, pork barrel was not a hot subject of debate. It was only after the approval of the 1994 GAA that pork barrel became a frequent front-page subject for heated discussion.

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What was it in the 1994 GAA that invited debate?

Earlier pork barrel laws specifically stated that the money could be released only with the approval of the President, and that the budget secretary should promulgate rules and regulations for pork barrel funds.  For as long as this was followed, there was no problem. However, such requirements were removed by the 1994 GAA, Republic Act No. 7663.

Officials concerned

RA 7663 simply said: “The fund shall be automatically released quarterly by way of Advice of Allotments and Notice of Cash Allocation directly to the assigned implementing agency not later than five (5) days after the beginning of each quarter upon submission of the list of projects and activities by the officials concerned.”

Who are these “officials concerned”? They are senators, representatives, and the Vice President. In effect, RA 7663 gave to the members of Congress control over the release of approved funds.

Whereas under the Constitution it is the President, either directly or through executive agencies, who should control the release of funds, the executive agencies awaited the go-signal of the members of Congress before they could release the funds for the projects recommended by the members of Congress.

The decision Tuesday of the Supreme Court restores the normal constitutional order of handling public money. The first destination of money coming in for the public, either as taxes or other forms of income, is the public treasury. And such money stays in the treasury until Congress determines how it is to be used.

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As the Constitution says, “No money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation made by law.” The appropriation can be either through the general appropriations law or through special appropriations. This provision prevents members of Congress, and the President, from indiscriminately spending unappropriated money.

Now that we have the Supreme Court decision, unappropriated and unspent money will have to be returned to the general coffers of government “except for the funds covered by the Malampaya Fund and the Presidential Social Fund, which shall remain therein to be utilized for their respective special purposes not otherwise declared unconstitutional.”

Effect on President

What effect will this decision have on President Aquino’s capacity to meet emergency situations? I do not know how much money the President has in the contingency provisions for him in the general appropriations law.

Does he have the resources needed to deal with the effects of the October earthquake in Bohol and now also with the ravages caused by Supertyphoon “Yolanda?” At the rate the President is reassuring the survivors of the ravages caused by nature, he probably is confident that he has the resources. If needed, he can call Congress to a special session to appropriate what more is required.

The beneficiaries of the pork barrel will probably be unhappy with the high court’s decision. Many of them really needed what the pork barrel system had given them. That need of many remains.

The challenge now is for Congress and for the President to devise something constitutional to fill the vacuum left by the Supreme Court’s decision declaring pork barrel unconstitutional.

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TAGS: congress, Countrywide Development Fund, Philippines, pork barrel, State Budget, Supreme Court
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