December 23, 2013

"People vs pork barrel"

The  campaign to rid the country of the pork barrel system has brought  to the fore, like the proverbial worms in the woodwork, the many forms of this abomination, not just the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and its immediate predecessor, the Countryside Development Fund (CDF), collectively dubbed “Congressional pork”, but also the gargantuan “Presidential pork” that had previously gone unremarked because it is camouflaged and justified in the guise of giving the Chief Executive flexibility in dealing with unforeseeable contingencies and addressing the demands of governance.

Also exposed in the process are the clever if not devious and apparently legal but essentially anomalous, techniques and measures that both Congress and Malacanang have devised to divert humongous amounts into their pork barrels  during the budgeting and implementation process.  Some of these, have been declared unconstitutional by no less than the Supreme Court.  But many more remain in force, not to mention the resurrection and introduction of such measures and devices in “new” forms, guises and nomenclatures.

These include, on the part of the Executive, over-budgeting or padding the items in the National Expenditure Plan (NEP) to ensure “savings” that can be realigned later on to expenditures that are not included in the national budget. Then there is impoundment, that is, the President not spending money appropriated by law either through cancellation of the appropriation or deferral or suspension of the release of the appropriated funds.  Subsequently such funds, classified as “savings” are realigned for other purposes not necessarily appropriated for in the national budget.

There are the billions  of “unprogrammed” funds which are lump sums still to be raised from revenue measures or loans incurred by government and geared towards purposes that are nonspecific or overbroad, thus making the funds susceptible to irregular spending if not outright graft and corruption.

There are the lump sums traditionally considered sacrosanct such as intelligence funds purportedly to be used for national security purposes which ostensibly due to their covert nature are not subject to standard auditing.  And the calamity funds, notorious for being the milking cow of government officials using the cover of urgent rescue, relief and even rehabilitation and recovery measures as a means for playing fast and loose with billions of public funds.

There is also such a thing as “off-budgeting” or the numerous and large lump sum funds whose actual program of expenditures has been left to the sole discretion of the President such as the Malampaya Fund, the Presidential Social Fund, Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) and the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR) Trust Funds.  These do not undergo the regular national budgeting process requiring Congress deliberation and approval.

There is the rampant practice of introducing “riders” during the bicameral sessions on the bill when legislative and public scrutiny is minimal and enactment is practically a formality.

All these dubious and questionable practices happen sans careful Congressional scrutiny and diligent fiscal oversight so long as the legislators’ pork, in the form of lump sums or through congressional insertions, is assured.

The stark reality that neither Congress nor the President will ever voluntarily take steps toward the abolition of the pork barrel system has led to the idea of the people exercising their sovereign power by invoking their right to directly propose and enact laws as provided in section 32 of article VI of the 1987 Constitution.  Sovereignty resides in the people, who merely delegate to Congress the power to craft and enact laws. This is called the “people’s initiative”. 

At least 10 per cent of the total number of registered voters and at least 3 per cent of every legislative district must sign a petition for the purpose and register the same with the Commission on Elections. Thereafter, a referendum is held where the proposed bill is put to a vote.  Once a majority of votes is cast in its favor, the bill immediately comes into effect with no need of Presidential approval nor is it subject to his veto.

A team of lawyers working under the auspices of the anti-pork alliance, the #abolishporkmovement, has come up with such a proposed bill.  It has recently been made public with the caveat that it is a work in progress and subject to the inputs, changes and other feedback from all concerned sectors and individuals.  Its tentative title is “An Act Abolishing the Pork Barrel System, Reforming the Budgetary Process and Implementation, Prohibiting Certain Acts, and Providing Penalties Therefor”.

The pork barrel is defined as “a public fund, usually in the form of a lump sum, the discretion over which is given by law, regulation or practice to the President or any public officer in the executive branch (Presidential or executive pork) or to a legislator or group of legislators (legislative pork).  The exercise of discretion by public officers or legislators relates to the use, allocation or release of pork barrel funds, the identification or selection of projects or beneficiaries, or any or all of these.”

The proposed law declares: “The State affirms the need to establish a system of strict accountability over the use of public funds to ensure that they are spent solely for functions, programs, projects and activities that redound to the interest of the people, especially the poor and marginalized sectors of Philippine society.” In this regard, the rules and practices of the pork barrel system are eliminated, “the mechanisms of checks and balances are strengthened, and that constitutional safeguards related to budgeting, appropriation and use of public funds are followed.”

The policies of one fund and line-item budgeting are to be instituted so that off-budgeting and lump sums, as a general rule, are disallowed and thus become a thing of the past.

To quote the proposed law:  “To ensure that no money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of a valid appropriation made by law, the State shall establish safeguards to eliminate the practice of maintaining accounts outside those duly appropriated by law…” Thus the Malampaya Fund and other off-budget accounts will thereafter be included in the National Expenditure Program submitted by the Executive to Congress for approval.  Likewise, the proposed law abolishes the Presidential Social Fund as a special fund left to the sole discretion of the President.

Moreover,  “(r)ecognizing that lump sum and discretionary funds in the government budget are prone to abuse and have facilitated the plunder of the national coffers by corrupt and unscrupulous public officers with the participation of private individuals, the State hereby adopts a policy of itemized or line-items only appropriations except in limited cases provided by law.”

Legislators are prohibited from intervening in budget implementation in any manner from project identification to exercising any authority in the release or realignment of funds post-enactment.  They are further prohibited from inserting new budget items during the Budget Bicameral Committee proceedings without allowing both Houses of Congress to deliberate and vote on such amendments.

For his part, the President is prohibited from impounding any portion of the national budget unless circumstances warrant and only upon approval by Congress.  It becomes mandatory that all unspent, unobligated and unreleased funds by the end of the fiscal year should be kept in the General Fund and not be spent except by means of a subsequent appropriation law.  The practice of mislabeling, misusing and abusing “savings” will be put to an end.

Prohibited acts have corresponding penalties ranging from one year to twenty years and perpetual disqualification from public office.  And despite the absence of a Freedom of Information Law, the PI bill abolishing "pork", mandates that all public transactions shall be published in the concerned agency’s websites in 15-30 days and thus made accessible to the general public.

Finally, to make sure that Congress cannot simply overturn the law with repealing legislation, this act abolishing the pork barrel system “may only be repealed, modified or amended by a law that has been approved by the people under the system of initiative and referendum established by Republic Act No. 6735.”

By clearly identifying the sources of pork and the anomalous means by which it is created, appropriated and consumed, the proposed bill has a huge potential for rallying the outraged people to take matters in their own hands and invoke their sovereign right to enact a law to abolish the pork barrel system once and for all. #

Published in Business World
13- 14 December 2013


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