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Without pork, Aquino is a lame duck

Without the pork barrel funds, President Aquino will most likely be a lame-duck president for the remaining three years of his administration, and we will see a truly independent Congress after all these hypocritical three years. Even the controversy alone over pork barrel and Aquino’s efforts to deal with it will have consequences that will loosen his hold on Congress.

That senators and congressmen have supported Mr. Aquino because of his openhandedness in doling out to them the euphemistically termed Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), rather than because they are adherents of his tuwid na daan pseudo-ideology is obvious in the mammoth scale of such funds released by this president:

• These averaged P24.8 billion annually from 2011 to 2013, with the budget he approved for this year even increasing the pork barrel to P27 billion.

• This is three times the P7.4 billion annual average from 2008 to 2010, the last years of President Arroyo’s administration.

Source: Department of Budget and Management

Source: Department of Budget and Management

Check out in the table, the senators who had the largest increases in their pork barrel in 2012, and you’d suspect they were merely brilliant actors debating law and ethics during Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment.

I had wondered then why the Left party-lists were the most vociferous in condemning Corona who stood firm against the landlord clan of the Cojuangcos in the Hacienda Luisita case in the Supreme Court. Check out how much they got in pork barrel during the year of the impeachment and these self-styled purported crusaders had pork-barrel money up to their ears.

Smarter than others of course was then Akbayan representative Kaka Bag-ao, who was even in the legal panel of the prosecutors. Few knew that she was a resident of the Province of Dinagat Island, and her support of the impeachment against Corona was just a step for her political ambitions.

After the trial, her reward was as Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s “liaison” to the province, after the House of Representatives expelled its elected representative Ruben Ecleo, since the Supreme Court affirmed the graft case against him. As “caretaker”, Bag-ao got control of the province’s remaining P137 million pork-barrel, more than enough for her to win the May elections. Good-bye Akbayan, for her.

If Aquino abolishes Congress’ pork barrel, it would be his most important, game-changing legacy to the nation.

But he won’t, or can’t.

Unwittingly, Aquino himself belied his intention to abolish the pork-barrel system, when he explained what would replace it. By definition, pork barrel here and elsewhere is “is government spending for localized projects secured primarily to bring money to a representative’s district” so as to strengthen his political support among voters there.

Aquino will not be junking that system. He will merely make changes in its implementation.

Pork barrel is presently a lump-sum fund (officially P70 for congressmen and P200 million for Senators) the actual use in his district of which legislator determines after the budget has been approved and in place. Aquino’s proposal is for congressmen and senators to include the detailed use of the pork barrel as items in the appropriations bill they will be passing for approval by the President.

The only big change in Aquino’s scheme in terms of combating corruption would be that there would be a ban on appropriating funds to NGOs, many of which scandalously have turned out to be ghost entities. Aquino claims that the use of the funds will be “transparent” as these will be posted in government’s website.

Good luck, but I’d bet the corrupt in government and the business sector would find ways and means to rig biddings, which is usually done through dummy bidders.

Aquino’s new pork barrel system will continue with the allocations for “localized projects” but with one important change: He or his factotums, mainly Budget secretary Florencio Abad, would in effect still have the say to approve or not the actual release of the funds. If a legislator doesn’t do his bidding, his request for the release of funds for his district will be lost in the bureaucratic maze in the Budget department, told that there are no funds available, or silently ignored.

Legally impossible? Every congressman by law has P70 million annually in their PDAF allocations. How much has Zambales First District congressman Milagros Magsaysay, an articulate critic of this administration, received since 2011 under Aquino’s term? Zero. Not a single centavo. When she asked Abad to explain why, he arrogantly replied: “There are political realities.”

It will be a very rough time ahead for Mr. Aquino as he tries to put in place a new system for getting Congress to do his bidding.

First, he has ordered pork-barrel releases to be put on hold until “reforms” are in place. But until when? Every day that the legislators don’t get their hands on their pork barrel, Aquino’s leashes attached to their necks are loosened. It is likely that some legislators will question the legality of Aquino’s suspension since, after all, the PDAF is an item in the Appropriations Act they passed and which the President approved as a law of the land.

Second, what happens now to the budget proposal for 2014 that had the lump sum PDAF, which Aquino asked Congress on July 10 to approve? (Secretary Ricky Carandang boasted then that Aquino closely scrutinized the budget “because he wants to make sure that taxpayers’ money is being spent properly and efficiently.” That was less than a month before the pork barrel exposes triggered a firestorm of protest. )

Will Aquino withdraw it and rewrite it so that the use of pork barrel will instead be line items in the budget? Speaker Belmonte said that he has asked congressmen to “consult with their constituents” so they can identify and list the projects that would be made as line items in the budget. Is there a single congressman doing this?

It is already September next week, and with the Christmas season, there are only three months to re-do the budget, for Congress to approve it, and the President to sign it into law.

Will the legislators revise it to comply with Aquino’s declaration to change the pork barrel system? Or will they resist him? Will they delay the passage of a new appropriations act for next year until they are assured of their pork? After all, it is Congress, and Congress alone, which approves the budget, whether or not it will have pork barrel funds. Already, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte has said that he expects opposition to its scrapping.

With Aquino no longer able to give them their pork barrel, why would congressmen support him? They may even calculate that the best way to wrangle concessions from Aquino one way or another, at the same time earn press mileage, is to join the growing outrage against him. They are not ignorant of the fact that one of the surest way to get into the Senate, and even the Presidency—as in the case of Mr. Aquino—is to be so vociferously against a President.

A political landslide has fallen on Aquino’s tuwid or not-so-tuwid na daan. Study the permutations of the pork-barrel issue, and it’s obvious that it will make Aquino a lame-duck president for the rest of his term. Maybe even a sitting duck in the political battles ahead.