MIND DA NEWS: Loss of Pork, Loss of Rights?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 11 Sept) – House representatives are evidently considering the loss of their pork, the loss of rights – the right of their constituents so-called to financial assistance and their own right to give that assistance. And they seem bent on salvaging those rights.

This was apparent after the House majority had decided to abolish the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) “under the condition that the controversial pork barrel would not be resurrected under a different item or name.” Antipolo Rep. Roberto Puno, head of the National Unity Party, sounded uncompromising: “If we say abolish, it should be abolished.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 6, 2013: Lawmakers grumbling over pork loss)

Item 1: Deputy Speaker Sergio Apostol wants congressmen to have a share of the road users’ tax estimated at P12.7 billion annually to compensate the loss. But when told by Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson during the House budget hearing that each congressional district is allotted from P10 million to P20 million, he considered it small.

Item 2: Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, vice chair of the appropriations committee, said the House of Representatives’ appropriations committee is mulling over a proposal to allow lawmakers to take charge of identifying the limited infrastructure projects that would be provided for in the 2014 General Appropriations Act. Under the proposal, the infrastructure projects identified by the lawmakers would be included in the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways. (PDI, September 9, 2013: Lawmakers insist on right to pick projects)

Item 3: Western Samar Rep. Mel Senen Sarmiento, Liberal Party secretary general, agreed that the PDAF would be taken out for good in the national budget. “It will now be up to the executive department to farm out the PDAF allocations to make sure it would get to their intended beneficiaries.” (PDI: Lawmakers grumbling …)

Item 4: The lawmakers, Sarmiento said, are concerned that with the abolition of the PDAF they will have no source of funds for “the needs of our poor people, especially those from the provinces” like scholarship and other educational benefits, medical assistance and other health benefits. “We will now leave it to the executive branch, to the line agencies to handle … We’ll give it a try”.

What rights are lost? The poor have the right to assistance from the government. On the part of lawmakers, their right to give assistance is defined by and limited to their duty to pass laws. They have the right – in fact the obligation – to legislate programs for the welfare of the people, especially the poor. But they have no right to the funds for the implementation of projects under those programs. The PDAF is anomalously misplaced. PDAF should have been CRF (Congressional Reelection Fund) – what it really is.

The abolition of the pork barrel system – named variously in the past – is long overdue. Ruefully, President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III for all his vaunted Matuwid na Daan had no plan to abolish the PDAF. He had it funded in the 2014 budget. That he ordered it abolished to co-opt popular outrage but recommended the realignment of the PDAF allocation for projects under line agencies, wittingly or unwittingly, allowing lawmakers to identify projects betrays insincerity – abolishing PDAF but not the pork barrel system.

What is the proposal to realign the PDAF? Evardone clarified that the kind of infrastructure projects lawmakers could push would be severely limited. “We will limit the menu to projects less prone to corruption, such as the concreting of roads and multipurpose buildings. We won’t allow the graveling of roads or dredging projects” – giving less discretion on the part of lawmakers and making it easy to monitor. No matter how limited, that is still the pork barrel in spirit and action.

It is the function of lawmakers to legislate development projects within their districts with national funding. But this must be done after consultations with the people and the local governments. The lawmakers and the local governments have the same constituency. Such projects must have no partisan political color. The lawmakers’ role is legislation; that of the local governments and the people is monitoring the implementation. That will eliminate corruption – the truly Matuwid na Daan.

The prerogative of lawmakers to sponsor “hard project” and “soft project” is the function of the executive branch ceded to the legislative with discretionary powers and funding for give-and-take political co-existence. The pork barrel is a twin-gun, one gun pointed to the legislative, the other to the executive – Congress: Give us the pork barrel or we will not cooperate; the President: cooperate or I will not release your pork barrel. Is the pork barrel system really for the poor as claimed?

The lip-service concern of the lawmakers for the poor people should be better taken care of with the abolition of PDAF – the “hard project” aspect returned to the line agencies, mostly to the Department of Public Works and Highways; the “soft project” aspect turned into programs to complement or supplement already existing programs and powers within the functions of the national and local government executives.

To clarify further: The soft project aspect of PDAF has the long-term, emergency, and dole out scopes. The long-term, like educational and health benefits, can be legislated into ad hoc programs and attached to pertinent government agencies. The emergency, like giving assistance to disaster victims can enhance the functions already exercised by the President and local government executives. The dole out, like money for funerals, fare of stranded travelers, etc., is the burden of the lawmakers; they must use their own personal funds if they want to play Santa Claus to boost their reelection.

To reiterate:

Ceding development prerogatives of the executive to the legislative for political give-and-take expediency is anomalous. Abolishing the PDAF and the pork barrel system does not remove the right to legislate of the lawmakers; neither does it diminish their right under the power of the purse doctrine to have the final say on the national budget proposed by the executive. Dispensing PDAF money is not contemplated in the power of the purse doctrine. The lawmakers do not lose any right with the abolition of PDAF.

The right of the poor and the unfortunate to assistance is already being taken care of under laws and programs within the functions of the national and local government executives. If flaws in these laws and programs depriving the poor of necessary assistance are the reason for the pork barrel system, the lawmakers should correct the flaws by legislation instead of usurping executive functions. If they do, the right of the poor to assistance will be enhanced, not lost.

Under no pretension or circumstance will any right be lost with the abolition of the PDAF and the pork barrel system.