Pork ‘guisado’: the 2015 budget
President Benigno Aquino III and leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives have declared the 2015 budget free of pork barrel. To know if this is true, we have to begin with its definition.
Organizers of the People’s Initiative Against the Pork Barrel have defined it as a lump-sum appropriation, the use of which is subject to the sole discretion of the President, a legislator, or any other public officer after the enactment of the budget. The discretion they have over the fund relates to its allocation; its release or use; the identification or selection of projects, implementers or beneficiaries; or a combination of all these.
This definition is based on the Philippine experience where such lump-sum, discretionary funds as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of legislators, or the special purpose funds and lump-sum allocations of the Executive, are easily and routinely used by these officials for political patronage or, worse, for corruption and plunder.
Using this definition, how does the 2015 budget check out?
Just like in the 2014 budget, the most obvious and notorious form of congressional pork—the PDAF—has been removed. This is in keeping with the Supreme Court ruling that declared the PDAF unconstitutional for allowing legislators to meddle in the implementation of government projects and programs, or what the high court calls “postenactment” activities.
But as in 2014, what was once the PDAF has merely been broken up and realigned—“itemized,” as it were—to seven agencies: the Department of Works and Highways for its Local Infrastructure Program worth P18.37 billion; Department of Social Welfare and Development for its Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services Program worth P3.64 billion; Department of Health for its Assistance to Indigent Patients worth P1.76 billion; Department of Labor and Employment for its Government Internship Program and Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged Workers Project worth P611.7 million; Technical Education and Skills Development Authority for its Special Training for Employment Program worth P543.3 million; and Commission on Higher Education and various state colleges and universities for their Tulong Dunong Program worth P2.46 billion.
On paper, lawmakers have no discretion over or any role to play in the implementation of the projects or programs. But this is where it gets tricky. The truth is, just like in the old PDAF system, the funds are preallocated to each district and party-list group, the release of which is subject to a discreet system of referrals and recommendations by lawmakers, designed and implemented by the agencies themselves.
In other words, just like in the old PDAF system, it is still the congressmen who will say which infrastructure project to fund, which patient to be given money for medicines, which student to be given a scholarship, which poor family to be given financial aid. And, as in the past, such a system will surely be used for political patronage and corruption. Indeed, if it walks like the PDAF and looks like the PDAF, then it’s pork barrel.
So, yes, the 2015 budget technically has no PDAF, but each congressman will have P94.4-million worth of pork barrel, more than the previous PDAF allocation of P70 million per year. The bulk of the increase will go to the DPWH, whose budget for local infrastructure has been more than doubled—from P7.31 billion to P18.37 billion—no doubt for our politicians’ election showcase projects.
But all that is peanuts compared to the presidential pork barrel amounting to some P958 billion. This includes special purpose funds, unprogrammed funds, and other lump-sum appropriations whose release is on the sole discretion of the President or his appointees. Among the more notorious of these items are: assistance to local government units at P33.1 billion; grassroots participatory budgeting, P20.9 billion; risk management program, P30 billion; support for infrastructure projects and social programs, P20 billion; unprogrammed fund, P123 billion; miscellaneous personnel benefit fund, P118 billion; and the Pamana Program, P7.3 billion.
The President also has discretion over the P148-billion Malampaya Fund and P29.5 billion in other off-budget accounts including the Motor Vehicles Users’ Charge and the President’s Social Fund.
The annual savings, estimated at P251 billion in 2014, top the President’s pork. With the redefinition of savings in the 2015 General Appropriations Act, the President is now allowed to declare billions of pesos in savings in the middle of the year for use as pork barrel for his or his allies’ pet projects, just like what he did under the Disbursement Acceleration Program.
Thus, as far as pork barrel goes, 2015 will be essentially no different from the previous years, give or take a couple of billions of pesos.
Senate finance committee chair Francis Escudero says these lump-sum, discretionary appropriations can’t be avoided. He assures the public that provisions have been introduced in the budget barring lawmakers from postenactment interventions as well as the President’s DAP-style practice of pooling savings from impounded projects in order to realign the budget. He also says agencies will now be required to submit special budgets before using their lump-sum funds.
But these measures have been tried before, with hardly any dent in the way the pork barrel has been abused or plundered.
Until Congress, or the public through a people’s initiative, does away with lump-sum, discretionary funds altogether, the national budget will always be bursting with pork. And we will always end up stewing in our own juices. Igigisa pa rin tayo sa sariling mantika.
Teddy Casiño is an activist who served for three terms in Congress as a Bayan Muna party-list representative (2004-2013). He is now back in the parliament of the streets.
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