By SATUR OCAMPO
After President Duterte signed this week the P3.767-trillion 2018 national budget passed by his “supermajority” in the 17th Congress, the pork barrel funds purposely hidden within it – funds that the Supreme Court, in 2013, declared as unconstitutional — have become a public issue again.
And it’s not only the devious undermining of the Supreme Court ruling that should evoke public rebuke and disdain.
What rankles more is the arrogance with which Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (described in media as Duterte’s “bosom friend”), backstopped by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno (a member of the President’s three-man economic team), flaunt their power to liberally dispense public funds for projects of political allies and arbitrarily deny the same to dissenters and critics.
This, at a time when President Duterte repeatedly vows to fulfill his electoral promise to end corruption in government during his term.
Historically, the pork barrel has been associated with graft, having been shown up as a source of kickbacks for members of the House and the Senate. This has most glaringly been exposed in the multi-billion Napoles pork-barrel scam, now subject to various Ombudsman investigations and court proceedings. Disturbing, however, have been the initial actions of the courts, which seem to have leniently handled the cases in ways that favored the accused legislators.
Specifically the instant issue involves about P11 billion (per one source) originally earmarked for infrastructure projects of 24 dissenting members of the House: such as roads, bridges, seawalls, flood-control projects in their respective districts. “Inexplicably,” as a news report pointed out, the allocations were realigned for other uses during the meeting of the Senate-House conference committee (a small select group of senators and congrsessmen) to reconcile conflicts in the two chambers’ versions of the national budget. Result: the 24 dissenting legislators got zero fund allocations.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who hadn’t availed of and consistently opposed the pork barrel (officially named Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF), has affirmed the existence of the pork barrel fund allocations in the 2018 budget, as he had claimed also existed in the 2017 budget.
“A chosen few from both houses (of Congress),” Lacson said, “are getting billions worth of projects in areas of their choices and districts,” quoting tongue-in-cheek one critic during the Marcos dictatorship, “Some are smarter than others.”
He told media that he had detected what he called “owned-up projects” when he tried to excise from the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) P68 billion worth of infrastructure projects with unresolved right-of-way issues, and P18.4 billion more projects lacking disaggregated right-of-way costs. Despite the Senate adopting his proposal to slash P50.7 billion from the DPWH budget, the bicameral committee restored the original amounts he had opposed.
“That’s life!” was how Speaker Alvarez reportedly dismissed the complaint of affected legislators, asserting his prerogative to deny pork to those who oppose the administration’s policies and programs .
But Budget Secretary Diokno didn’t leave Alvarez alone to deal with his colleagues’ outcries. In a media briefing on the 2018 national budget, Diokno articulated what could be the Duterte administration’s stance on the matter:
“There will be a distinction between those who are allies of the administration and those who are not…. If you’re with us, then you get something. If you’re not with us, then you don’t get something…. Allies will get more. More projects.”
Acknowledging that the national budget is a political tool used by the administration to reward loyal allies and punish political enemies, Diokno pointed out this has been a long-standing practice. “You know,” he specifically noted, “that was the policy even before martial law… ‘If you’re not with us, you don’t get anything.’”
Diokno seems to say that because it has been the long-standing practice in Philippine politics, it’s correct and just to use the money of the people – through allocations in the budget – for political patronage. Is retaining such an odious practice part of Duterte’s so-called war against corruption?
This brings us to another aspect of this issue, which demonstrates how Speaker Alvarez can be as reckless, mean, and vicious as his “bosom friend” towards the Makabayan bloc of seven progressive partylist representatives.
Having been alluded to as being among the 24 legislators who got zero project funding, the Makabayan bloc assserted that they have consistently shunned and opposed the hidden pork in the national budget.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate clarified:
“Since my first term in Congress iin 2013 and until now, I did not partake of any pork-barrel- type congressional allocation in pursuance of our advocacy against patronage politics and the pork barrel system.”
To which ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio seconded: “Consistent with our stand against the pork barrel system, we have no infrastructure projects… As far as we are concerned, there’s nothing to ‘zero.’”
Alvarez confirmed that the Makabayan bloc had “not accessed funds from Congress at all.” But, rather than commend them for it, he chose to make an unfounded and unfair insinuation.
“We do not know where they get funds for projects for their constituents,” said the speaker. “All we know is that the communist rebels, with whom they have an ideological and political affinity, impose what’s known as revolutionary taxation in areas where they operate.” He added that the Makabayan legislators had not made a “clear and unequivocal condemnation of revolutionary taxation.”
Zarate’s group promptly denounced Alvarez’s “malicious and dangerous red tagging,” saying the “House leadership just wants to divert attention from the now-awakened issue of thriving pork barrel in Congress.”
It used to be the government claim, since Gloria Arroyo’s term, that the progressive partlylist bloc was channelling its PDAF funds to the NPA. Arroyo (now a Duterte ally) went as far as having the six progresssive partylist representatives then preposterously charged in court with rebellion.
The Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed for lack of merit. What is Alvarez talking about now?
Merry Christmas to all!