BY MAVERICK RUSSEL FLORES
“Christmas is cold. But I’m okay,” Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. told reporters inside the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City on Dec. 22.
Arrested for alleged plunder, Revilla, Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile spent their Christmas behind bars. But as the ghost of a system past still haunts the country, pork might not merely be an item for this year’s Noche Buena.
Death of a system
The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or pork barrel, was a system that granted legislators lump sum funds which they could allocate to their chosen projects. These funds were allegedly misused by members of Congress, with the aid of businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and a clever scheme that brought pork barrel into infamy.
Napoles was pinned for setting up bogus non-government organizations (NGOs) and letting legislators course their funds to these organizations. She allegedly gave a 40 to 60 percent commission to solons, keeping the remaining government fund to herself.
As this scam was brought to light, the Supreme Court decided to restudy the system. On Nov. 19, 2013, the PDAF was deemed unconstitutional and abolished.
On June 20 this year, Revilla was the first to be arrested, being one of the three senators allegedly receiving the highest commissions from Napoles’s scheme. The other two, Estrada and Enrile, were arrested in the following months, and are now facing graft and plunder charges along with Napoles.
At the time, Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which allows the executive department to course the nation’s savings to chosen programs, also drew flak for its resemblance to pork barrel.
The fiasco eventually led to an SC decision on Jul. 1, 2014, which scrapped the pork barrel-like system. The court stated that allotting and transferring funds between agencies and projects, as well as declaring savings, without complying with the General Appropriations Act is unconstitutional.
With PDAF and DAP gone, and the three senators suspected to have garnered the highest commissions from the scam put in jail, the burden of corruption in the country had become presumably lighter.
But as the year comes to an end and with next year’s national budget approved, political watchdogs and lawmakers maintain that pork barrel still exists—and if true, the government had learned to slip it under the people’s noses.
Budget of the people
Two days before Christmas this year, President Benigno S. Aquino III signed the General Appropriations Act of 2015. Next year’s budget amounted P2.606 trillion, which is 15.1 percent higher than last year’s. It also included the P10 billion “Build Back Better” fund allotted for Super Typhoon Yolanda rehabilitations.
“This budget is a true budget of the people,” Aquino said in his speech, claiming that no pork-barrel-like allocations were included in the budget.
But Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago begged to differ. In a privilege speech before the Senate on Nov. 24, she said the budget still contained pork barrel-like lump sums, albeit diverted to sectors of the government.
Social Watch Philippines lead convenor Leonor Briones told Manila Standard Today that lump sum items totaling P47.18 billion were allocated to five key agencies for various projects; namely, the Departments of Health (DOH), Social Work and Development (DSWD), Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), Labor and Employment (DOLE), and Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
In defense of these allocations, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said there are lump sums, such as the calamity fund, that cannot be avoided.
“By their very nature, the executive should have flexibility,” Valte said.
In her speech, however, Santiago said senators and representatives were asked to submit lists of their pet projects last summer, closely resembling the PDAF scheme.
“I understand that the form distributed did not bear any letterhead,” Santiago said, claiming the information was from her sources, who refused to give other details.
Meanwhile, Briones said the lawmakers were also allowed to pick infrastructure projects to be funded by P27.35 billion-worth of former pork barrel allocations now granted to DPWH. She said they were even allowed to select the people who will handle the funds and projects for the four other key agencies.
However, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the SC finds nothing anomalous in the system, as it is the Congress’ duty to itemize funded projects.
Santiago remained firm. “Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that this is true. Why would anyone distribute slips of paper and ask representatives in the Lower House to write down what projects they desire for their districts? That’s the very essence of pork barrelism,” she said.
The senator also attested to a new form of DAP. She said the General Appropriations Act of 2015 contains a broader—in fact, constitutionally overbroad—definition of the term “savings.”
“The old definition referred to final discontinuance or abandonment. The new definition refers to discontinuance or abandonment at any time,” Santiago said.
This broader definition, Briones said, enables the executive to declare funds as savings, and be able to course them to chosen projects anytime, as with DAP.
Moreover, she said this will be furthered by a special provision in the new budget, wherein special purpose funds can now be declared as savings “to augment deficiency in the budget of the judicial branch, legislative branch and executive branch of the government including constitutional commissions and offices.”
If the allegations are true, then the government had yet again made a fool out of the nation that believed corruption—or at least a part of it—had been abolished once and for all.
And the people cannot even rely yet on justice’s hand against alleged perpetrators involved in the fund scam. Enrile, Estrada, and Revilla—“Tanda,” “Sexy,” and “Pogi,” as they were known during the heat of the scandal—may now be spending their holidays in detention, but they might not be the only ones who got their hands dirty.
Santiago said some local government officials have yet to be pinned with the alleged misuse of pork barrel funds amounting P2.7 billion.
As the blame game continues, however, one must notice how the roots of a “dead” system can still thrive in the supposedly pork barrel-free budget. Unless the system is uprooted completely, it will just breed new schemes to mask its existence. — with reports from Shara Lein May Cayetano, Julia Danielle Maaño and Anna Victoria Biala