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Commentary

Time for the bosses to act

/ 12:06 AM August 29, 2014

It’s a herculean task indeed. Well-meaning people have cautioned that pushing for the “pork barrel abolition bill” via people’s initiative is naive, misguided, manipulated or malicious. Why exert all that effort, they say, when the Supreme Court has already declared both the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF (aka congressional pork) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP (aka presidential pork) illegal and unconstitutional?

The simple answer: The pork barrel system is alive despite the Supreme Court rulings. ACT Teachers Party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio’s recent exposé gives us a glimpse of how Congress, in connivance with the executive, can go around the high court’s ruling. True, the PDAF has been stricken off the General Appropriations Act but it has now been surreptitiously distributed as lump sum appropriations in several agencies where congressmen are asked to “recommend” how and for whom these funds would be used. To quote Commission on Higher Education Chair Patricia Licuanan in her briefing to congressmen: “I know (PDAF) was supposed to be illegal, dapat  wala  na  but actually meron  pa.” Or Health Undersecretary Janet Garin, who said: “These funds are not DOH funds but are actually funds of congressmen who are there to assist their constituents.”

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As far as the DAP is concerned, Malacañang is blatantly asking Congress to redefine savings in the 2015 budget, and to introduce several provisions to allow the kind of fund realignments and cross-border transfers that the Court deemed illegal.

So why not just haul them all off to court? Cite the whole caboodle of legislators and executive officials for contempt and compel them to follow the Court’s decisions? Sure, we can do that as one of the petitioners in the PDAF case already has. But any positive ruling from the Court will only be as good as the next year’s GAA, or the next pork barrel scheme cooked up by Malacañang and Congress.

How about greater vigilance and public participation in the budget process to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court decisions? We can and should do that too, as we have done many times in the past. But knowing how easily Congress and the executive have brushed aside government watchdogs and NGOs in the past, well, that’s not enough.

Supreme Court decisions, like those on the PDAF and the DAP, are well and good, but there’s nothing like a good old law to ensure compliance. That’s what this people’s initiative is all about. It creates a tool for the people to fight systemic corruption by putting a final end to the mutating pork barrel system. It complements the high court’s decisions and goes further by prohibiting all forms of discretionary, lump-sum appropriations in the GAA except for those involving disaster response, intelligence and confidential funds and the usual 5-percent contingency fund. As for special funds (e.g., Malampaya Fund, Motor Vehicle Users Charge), their use shall be itemized in the National Expenditure Program for approval and strict oversight by Congress. Funds for the president’s personal pork, the “President’s Social Fund” sourced from Pagcor earnings, will henceforth be remitted directly to the National Treasury for inclusion in the GAA.

It is not true at all, as alleged by self-proclaimed constitutional expert Oscar Franklin Tan in a recent Inquirer commentary that the bill puts the executive in a straightjacket as far as savings are concerned. In fact, the proposed measure

allows the president, the Senate president, speaker of the House, the chief justice and heads of constitutional commissions to realign savings according to the guidelines laid down by the high court in the DAP case. Neither is it true that it contains a blanket prohibition on the impoundment of funds, only that such extreme action requires the president’s declaration of an unmanageable deficit as already provided for in previous GAAs.

What the bill does, which the Supreme Court could not do, is to criminalize pork barrel politics by imposing a penalty exceeding the immunity provided to congressmen and senators. A president who proposes a law with pork barrel appropriations, legislators who approve it and executive officials who comply will face at least six years and one day in jail plus perpetually disqualification from holding public office. Will this have a chilling effect on legislators and executive officials in their use of public funds? I certainly hope so.

The bill also prevents Congress from thwarting the people’s will by stating that only the people, through another people’s initiative, can amend or repeal the measure. This is a novel but necessary provision that asserts the superiority of a law passed through the people’s direct exercise of their lawmaking powers. Without it, Congress can easily render the people’s initiative useless via ordinary legislation.

Still, there are those like Tan who would mock this heroic effort by his “fellow ordinary citizens” as pointless. Apparently his disdain for his pañero Rep. Neri Colmenares and other P-Noy critics has caused him to commit not only factual errors (what “one-page initiative” he keeps citing, no one knows) but also exercise faulty logic in his conclusion that this is just another anti-P-Noy Left-Right conspiracy.

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As for me, I would like to think that Filipinos of whatever political inclination have a stake in ending the pork barrel system. This is not a matter of being pro- or anti-P-Noy, although there is that, too. It’s about the people finally acting as the bosses that they truly are.

Teddy Casiño is an activist who served for three terms in Congress as a Bayan Muna party-list representative from 2004-2013. He is now back in the parliament of the streets.

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TAGS: Antonio Tinio, congressional pork, dap, Disbursement Acceleration Program, PDAF, pork barrel, Pork Barrel Abolition Bill, Presidential pork, Priority Development Assistance Fund, Supreme Court
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