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The battle over pork

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GOVERNANCE MATTERS
By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY

Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President

Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

As the year draws to a close, we are treated to an unusual breach of cordiality between the House of Representatives and the Executive Department, which, by practice and tradition, are political aligned. At the core of the almost daily skirmish are alleged “insertions” in the proposed 2019 budget made by the Budget Secretary.

As I write this column, a senior House leader has gone to the extent of linking a still unnamed former Cabinet official running for national position to a “parking” scheme, where funds for supposed local flood control projects are “parked” in the public works budget without the knowledge of local officials. This is clearly an act of open warfare.

Interestingly, the tit-for-tat started with a revelation from a legislator from another chamber. Senator Ping Lacson alleged the existence of hidden “pork” in the proposed budget, with billions supposedly cornered by ranking House leaders. Asked to comment, the Palace spokesman told media that no less than the President himself wanted an explanation from the House leadership. Then came the bombshells.

In a letter to the President, the House majority leader revealed that it was the former leadership of the chamber who received the biggest insertions for infrastructure projects in the P3.7-trillion 2019 budget. The highest insertion was P5 billion for a single congressman, and the lowest was P3.5 billion. The Department of Public Works and Highways, however, is surprisingly unaware of these inserted amounts.

The blame for these “insertions” was laid squarely on the Budget Secretary, who was summoned to a hastily called Question Hour. If I recall correctly, this is the first time that a House controlled by allies of the administration subjected a member of the official family to intense grilling. I must commend the Budget Secretary for keeping his composure in the face of unwarranted asides from some legislators. He came to the House prepared and answered the questions competently. I just hope he reconsiders his decision not to attend future hearings. It was a very enlightening discussion on the intricacies of the budget process.

According to news reports, the legislators elicited an admission from the budget chief that P75 billion — and not P51 billion earlier identified by congressmen as  “parked pork barrel” — has been included for infrastructure projects. Contracts for the alleged “executive pork” have apparently been bid out even before Congress could approve the 2019 budget.

The majority leader would also expose the “favored status” of one contractor who reportedly cornered at least 30 infrastructure projects worth billions. The contractor, according to reports, is related to the Budget Secretary.

The next day, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution urging the President to fire the budget chief over these alleged “executive pork insertions.”

The President’s official family quickly came to the aid of their beleaguered colleague.

In a strongly worded statement, Cabinet secretaries protested “the disrespect and utter lack of courtesy” displayed by legislators against their colleague. They accused the congressmen of persecution, and slammed the resolution as “politically motivated and reeks of power play and ill purpose.”

Those are fighting words. And according to the palace spokesman, the President is standing behind his embattled budget chief. But invoking separation of powers may not be appropriate in rebuffing the House resolution. The House clearly stated it was only recommending to the President, a recognition of the prerogative and power of the executive. But the Cabinet is correct in denouncing the disrespect and lack of courtesy shown by some legislators. Although the majority leader handled the discussion in a professional and generally sober manner, some of his colleagues were out of bounds.

Congressional earmarks — derisively called pork barrel – became front and center of public scorn as a result of the billion-peso Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scandal involving Janet Lim-Napoles and her network of legislators and ghost NGOs. The public cried for blood but out of the long list of supposed pork beneficiaries, only three legislators – all identified with the opposition to the previous administration –  were charged in court. To this day, other legislators named in the so-called Napoles affidavit have yet to be investigated.

The Commission on Audit (COA) , which conducted a review of PDAF use at the height of the Napoles controversy, released a list of legislators who supposedly benefitted from ghost projects, yet conveniently stopped its audit at fiscal year 2009. While the agency publicly declared that it will continue to audit PDAF utilization from 2010 onwards, not much has been heard on the topic since then.

Yet the previous administration, known for its self-righteous posturing, did not scrap pork barrel despite the public outcry. It aligned itself with the argument that the pork barrel system serves as an equalizer for localities excluded from the funding and development priorities of the national government. There is a valid point in this argument, but one must also consider that in practice – especially during the previous administration – it is the executive that determines how much legislators will receive as pork, with some well-connected legislators receiving much, much more. Those in the opposition receive a pittance, if they receive anything at all.

The previous administration weaponized pork barrel to exact political fealty from allies and punish critics in Congress. The curious animal known as the Development Acceleration Program (DAP) – a clear example of “presidential pork” – was dangled as an incentive to secure the conviction of former Chief Justice Corona.

It is with this backdrop that the current wrangling between the House and the Palace becomes interesting. Two power centers at loggerheads over the issue of pork barrel, which, if we go by the decision of the Supreme Court, should not even exist.

The House leadership invokes its oversight function, while the president’s men cry power play and harassment. For now, it appears that we have a stalemate.

The question is: Who will blink first?

jcbinay11@gmail.com

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