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Congress: An irreparably damaged institution

Never has the Philippine Congress,  including before martial law, sunk so low as it has during President Aquino’s administration.

A group of alleged whistleblowers, a Commission on Audit’s special audit, and the Justice Secretary had claimed that several senators and a number of Representatives had conspired with criminal syndicates, one led by Janet Napoles, to pocket billions of pesos in taxpayers’ money.

And now even Napoles, obviously  fearing something could go wrong during her surgery, at least according to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima,  has spilled the beans, has named names, provided details on how senators and congressmen other than senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla, Jr. siphoned their pork barrel funds to their own pockets.

Now Panfilo Lacson, who ended his term as senator only last year, claims he knows what Napoles revealed to De Lima, which is, that 13 senators (a quorum, he facetiously says, which means half of the total senators plus one and nearly a hundred in the House of Representatives also stole from government coffers. Napoles, he hinted, had all the proof, and this is contained in her affidavit, or sworn testimony.

Have we lost our capacity for outrage?  Congress whose upkeep we pay in the tune of P10 billion yearly, is a den of thieves. We suspected so before, of course, but now there is proof, from somebody who actually gave them the money.

It has been so weird that Congress leaders, Liberal Party stalwarts Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte have been acting so nonchalantly. The Congress they are supposed to lead is burning, and they don’t seem to realize it.

Drilon’s office keeps on sending useless press releases, such as its latest one calling for a “sober approach on pork barrel scam.” The other day, it was one in which the Senate President claims government must hire more prosecutors to fight criminality.”  Before that was one in which Drilon congratulates himself for his high trust ratings.

Belmonte on the other hand appears to have been so busy making sure his family got the right price—about P4 billion—for its shares in the newspaper Philippine Star sold to a firm controlled by Indonesian magnate Anthoni Lim. Now he seems busy on how to convince Congress to back his project to amend the Constitution to lift restrictions on foreign investments in certain industries, which probably would include media.

One can find many instances in the history of our legislative body and those of other nations in which a legislator, or even several of them, were accused of a crime.

Wholesale crime

None though in which our Congress as it is now is accused of wholesale crime.  In our case, the lower house of Congress—nearly 100 of their members —are accused of being part of a conspiracy that has defrauded the government of billions of pesos in the past several years.

Perhaps Mr. Aquino could grab credit for this campaign to prosecute legislators, by its scale the biggest such move ever in our history.  But it was former Commission on Audit chairman Rey Villar who ordered the audit of the Priority Assistance Development Funds (PDAF) in May 2010, before Aquino assumed power and before he was replaced with Grace Pulido-Tan.

Tan of course should be praised for implementing Villar’s orders under her term, and expanding it—I hope—to include pork barrel during Aquino’s watch.

But her distinct contribution to the explosion of the PDAF bomb were, first, her histrionics (i.e., her famous “kahindik-hindik” remark) and, second, her report on three opposition senators, Enrile, Estrada and Revilla.

It is still a big mystery who was the brains behind the very organized orchestrated moves of the alleged whistleblowers, headed by Benhur Luy, to capture the nation’s attention on the pork barrel scam.

Was it initially intended by Aquino’s camp as a very controlled explosion, that would smear only the opposition legislators?

That it went out of control is obvious in that the pork-barrel scam story led first to the reveleation that he used PDAF releases to bribe Senators to vote to remove Chief Justice Renato Corona.  That eventually led to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the PDAF is unconstitutional. While this administration found a way to skirt the Court’s ruling (by putting each legislator’s request in the budget of each department) it certainly dulled the PDAF as a facile means to bribe legislators for its agenda.

Thirdly, the PDAF bomb led to the expose that he illegally juggled funds (that he called Disbursement Acceleration Fund) to ensure the Senate’s cooperation in his impeachment project.  With a case filed at the Supreme Court to rule the DAP unconstitutional, Aquino unexpectedly finds himself vulnerable to an impeachment charge of technical malversation of government funds.

And lastly, the PDAF controversy got so out of control that those charged with having stolen PDAF money has included Aquino’s trusted officials and party mates, among them former Bureau of Customs head Ruffy Biazon and TESDA director Joel Villanueva (son of religious sect leader, and staunch Aquino supporter, “Brother” Eddie Villanueva)  were also exposed as having been involved in their own pork-barrel scams.

Napoles special treatment

Not in his scariest nightmare did Aquino thought that, after Napoles’ surrender, he would have to talk face-to-face to her—in his official residence Malacañang Palace—and then to join her in the Presidential car that brought her to police headquarters to be jailed.

This raised suspicions that he had to personally assure Napoles that he would take care of her.   Why would Aquino do this, extend special treatment that included limousine service to an accused criminal, if he weren’t worried that Napoles had something on him?

Indeed, with her “business” so dependent on political connections, would she have been so naive or stupid as to not contribute hugely to Aquino’s campaign treasury chest in 2010?

Or this, which would be worse if true, that she knows that Aquino, who was a congressman from 1998 to 2007, also used his PDAF funds in the way his indicted colleagues did.

Whether Aquino’s operatives were foolishly playing with fire, which now could also engulf their boss’ house, or if they are still is in control of this entire pork-barrel scam controversy, the reality is that Congress’ integrity has been utterly damaged, most likely irreparably.  Even congressman, in shame, now prefer not to use their No. 8 car plates.

How can we trust these crooks with our money, how can we trust these thieves to make the laws of the land?  It’s the House of Thieves, the country’s biggest criminal syndicate.

That’s Filipinos’ dominant perception now, not that the PDAF bomb means the start of a determined attack on corruption in our bureaucracy that would eradicate forever such corruption as bribes to policemen, customs and BIR officials, and even sanitary inspectors, and big-time bid-rigging in the DOTC and the DPWH.

That Congress is essential for a representative democracy has proven to be an utter hogwash.  Have name-recall for any reason, patrons to bankroll your campaign so you’d look after their interests, and a talent for acting to be seen as someone concerned for the poor, and you’d have the best chance of being picked as one of 24 members of the powerful Senate—maybe even as its president—or a representative in your district.

Our system of government sucks.  If nothing else, this historic pork-barrel bomb should prod us as a nation to change the system.  We won’t go anywhere with such a bunch of crooks and hypocrites leading the nation.