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Friday, August 16, 2013

Aquino and the ‘pork barrel’

Streetwise
By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Business World
Noynoy-SONA-2013.6THE EXPOSÉ by whistle-blowers on the Napoles 10-billion “pork barrel” scam for ghost projects involving members of Congress, executive agencies, local government units, fake NGOs and a big-time syndicate of influence peddlers and high-flying hustlers could be explosive enough to cause a major shake-up in the way patronage politics operates in this country. Or it could go the way of so many other similar exposes, full of sound and fury, but ending up as just another dud.
For the avowed progenitor and main sponsor of “ daang matuwid” or the much-heralded movement for good governance, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, this exposé should be a golden opportunity to push the envelope as it were. It is a big wonder then why, with the Aquino government’s penchant for issuing drum and bugle calls for its anti-corruption crusade, it has chosen to take a passive, if not effete and inutile, position on the issue.
On the other hand, the Makabayan Coalition, the alliance of progressive party-lists composed of Bayan Muna, Gabriela Women’s Party, Anakpawis, Alliance of Concerned Teachers and Kabataan, has taken the lead in calling for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the legislators’ much-abused and corruption-ridden pork barrel, as well as the much larger and even less transparent lump-sum allocations for the Office of the President. They demand that these be reallocated instead to the perennially budget-starved health, education, housing, public transport and other socioeconomic service sectors of government. As a corollary, to exact justice and combat impunity for high crimes, Makabayan demands that the guilty parties be properly investigated, charged and meted out just punishment.
The timely, well-researched and no-holds-barred series of investigative articles on the pork barrel system by Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) sheds a probing light and provides some answers to the question on many people’s minds, not precluding some true believers of Mr. Aquino’s vaunted anti-corruption crusade, as to why the President has chosen to defend, justify and even enlarge thrice-over the PDAF since he took office.
Quoting Budget Secretary and former Congressman Butch Abad extensively, the following Malacañang line emerges: the pork barrel is a necessary evil because of the bigger reality that Philippine politics operates under a feudal patronage system. That is, politicians promise to provide jobs, infrastructure, better access to social services, and a host of dole-outs in exchange for being voted into office. The electorate in turn holds them to that promise by expecting even legislators, not just those elected to executive offices, to deliver these goods and services.
So allegedly the PDAF is the kitty that the legislators rely on for this benevolent purpose. To deny them access to these funds is to deny the particular constituencies of the members of Congress from benefitting from public resources that national government, through its executive agencies, may otherwise tend to overlook or neglect for one reason or the other.
To conclude, while such a patronage system is entrenched (due to poverty, so goes the argument) the pork barrel is here to stay unless Congress itself abolishes it (albeit quite an impossibility because of the inherent conflict of interest) or the people are miraculously enlightened to the irrationality, corruptibility and utter wastefulness engendered by the system regardless of what their national leaders say.
Mr. Abad could not quite dissemble enough the fact that Malacañang has no illusions the pork barrel funds really go to the under-served and deserving sectors of the close to 100 million Filipinos. In fact, the executive department does not really have any system in place to determine as much. This in itself is a huge part of the reason why the pork barrel is so un-transparent, lacking in accountability and lends itself to all sorts of scams, wholesale and retail, costing mind-boggling sums of money not just in hundreds of millions but tens of billions of pesos. Estimates reach as much as half of this year’s 27-billion total pork funds going into non-priority, non-productive and even non-existent projects.
Moreover, the “reforms” undertaken by the Executive Department to supposedly narrow down the kinds of projects that the pork barrel can fund and seeing to it that the money does not go directly to the “honorable gentlemen and ladies” of Congress but through the executive agencies or local government units which then turn these over to the “beneficiaries” have obviously not worked. The main players in the scams involved have already mastered the ins and outs of running off with the money with complete documentation to boot. (The signatures of the various officials on the “official documents” can later on be denied as “fake” when the scam is exposed).
At some point Mr. Abad (the President’s alter ego on such matters) ends up admitting to PCIJ that indeed the “pork” is a matter of “historical justice” vis-a-vis political friends and foes. Those who are allied to President Aquino receive their allotted pork (70 million each for congressmen and 200 million each for senators) and more (through such “pork-like” mechanisms as Congressional Allotments) while those in the Opposition or have somehow earned the ire of Malacañang like the Makabayan bloc, get theirs in trickles and in much delayed tranches.
The “pork” serves as the grease to oil the palms of the greedy and, perhaps, “needy” Congress persons (i.e. needing to pay off loans incurred in the last elections or already saving up on campaign funds for the next one).
It is therefore abundantly clear that the PDAF serves mainly the purpose of providing President Aquino the leverage for getting his priority legislation passed including the annual budget with its specific allocations, and even, on occasion, to impeach certain officials of Constitutionally-independent bodies such as the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman’s Office who run afoul of the President.
What of the President’s own “pork?” The PCIJ report draws attention to about 317.5 billion in special purpose funds or SPFs and 117.5 billion in unprogrammed funds proposed in the General Appropriations Act of 2013. According to former Budget Secretary and UP Professor Leonor Magtolis, because these are “not as detailed and specific as the budget proposals of regular agencies,” these “are vulnerable to reductions, transfers, and adjustments” since these are lump-sum funds.
Moreover such lump-sum funds do not include other special purpose funds under the sole discretion and control of the President such as the multibillion-peso Contingency and Calamity Funds. According to PCIJ, “Disbursement records on these funds have hardly been published online or disclosed to the citizens, despite repeated requests.” (We wonder does this have anything to do with Mr. Aquino’s less than lukewarm interest in having the Freedom of Information Bill passed?)
Incongruous as it seems to Mr. Aquino’s “ daang matuwid,” PCIJ brings to light the fact that Mr. Aquino retained and increased most of the “highly discretionary” SPFs and lump-sum funds found in the budgets of his predecessor, Ms. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in the budgets he has been submitting to Congress since 2011. These include “confidential and intelligence funds” for the Office of the President and 21 other executive agencies amounting to more than a billion pesos that Mr. Aquino strongly opposed when he was still a congressman.
When weighed in terms of substantial, crucial and effective reforms of the system of governance, Mr. Aquino cannot avoid being measured in terms of how he deals with big-time corruption in the form of the pork barrel. His apologia that the pork barrel system is too ingrained in the present rotten system of politics for a President with his unprecedented hold on both houses of Congress and his claimed “popular mandate” to be able to do anything about it smacks of plain and simple cop-out if not rank opportunism.

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