Real winner on pork
If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Supreme Court’s decision against pork barrel, it’s that we shouldn’t take shortcuts with the Constitution, however tempting and convenient. And for that lesson, now is the best “teaching moment,” as we reel from the onslaught of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and constitutional checks and balances stand in the way of quick action.
What do we make of the fact that the government has declared that it won’t file a motion for reconsideration? Maybe it simply accepts the obvious: There is no way it can triumph against the political tsunami triggered by the Napoles exposé. Or it means that President Aquino did not really lose much in the high court’s verdict.
One, the high court struck at the heart of what makes pork barrel legally infirm. The power of Congress here is solely to allocate funds—that is, to set policies and priorities through the budget. It cannot decide what specific projects and which contractors will profit from those funds. When the high court refers to “interven[tion in the] post-enactment stages of budget execution,” what it means is political patronage, the power to reward friends and punish enemies.
So who now wields that power? Who are the winners and losers?
The biggest winner is the President—as well as those who will come after him—in whom we now concentrate all power over the public largesse, the monopoly over the patronage power. The other winners are officials of local government units, because the high court insulated “affairs of purely local nature” from Congress’ meddling. They will be crying all the way to the bank, because now more funds are available for them and because they have their own “personal, lump-sum allocations” that have stayed below the political radar screen.
The senators may not mind, because they may have enough independent clout (including the power to unseat a president via impeachment) to make demands. But the biggest losers are the congressmen, because they will now have to line up at Malacañang “with their begging bowls” if they want to make it in the next elections. Indeed, that was why the high court had thrice validated the pork barrel, because it was the only way for the congressmen to secure the goodies for their constituents whether or not they were in the president’s good graces.
The second prong of the high court’s decision halts the hemorrhage of the Malampaya Fund, but it affects only disbursements under President Gloria Arroyo, not those under Mr. Aquino. The high court struck down the catch-all power of the president to use the Fund “for such other purposes as [he/she] may direct.” The law reserves the Fund for energy-related projects, but Arroyo spent it with unfettered discretion. On the other hand, Mr. Aquino has kept faith with the legal principle that the catch-all clause expands the president’s power merely to projects “of the same kind.”
Likewise with the third prong where the high court stops the use of the Presidential Social Fund for infrastructure projects. Mr. Aquino is not affected, because he can find independent legal authority to spend these moneys, which are generated from state-sponsored lotteries operating under separate statutory charters.
There are even stranger twists to this decision. It is a blow against “personal lump-sum allocations … from which [officials can] fund specific projects which they themselves determine.” It actually calls for greater transparency and scrutiny of such funds, of which the high court itself has aplenty, including the famous Judiciary Development Fund. The high court may have just shot itself in the foot.
Perhaps, too, that foot actually belongs to the Chief Justice. The high court’s statement that the Chief Justice was “concurring in the result only” raises questions that, hopefully, will be answered when it eventually releases the full decision to the public. Whatever that explanation, a 14-0 verdict by a high court from which its own Chief Justice differs bespeaks isolation rather than leadership. That may not be a problem for the cases involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund, but it will be for the Disbursement Acceleration Program when it is Mr. Aquino’s own discretion that is under question.
Finally, the high court could have earlier stopped the abuse of the Malampaya Fund when it heard the case of Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo v. Secretary Eduardo Ermita, but it took the public outrage provoked by the Napoles exposé to make it do what is right. The high court now teaches us that rules must be respected. That is a lesson it should have taught long ago.
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