Largest pork barrel ever: P24.7 billion in election year

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First of Two Parts

If there’s a single thing that should convince you, dear reader, how much of a rapacious wolf disguised in sheep’s clothing President Aquino’s Administration has been, it is the pork-barrel issue.

For 2016, Aquino’s last year in office and an election year, the Budget he got the Congress to approve had P24.7 billion in pork-barrel funds, shrouded in techno-fiscal mumbo jumbo his budget secretary, Florencio Abad, thought could fool the nation – Bottom-up Budgeting (BUB) projects.

It’s the same old pork barrel with a different name, though, but which the Supreme Court had defined as “government spending meant for localized projects and secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district.”

This year’s BUB is the biggest pork-barrel fund ever in our entire history.

Obviously this election year is intended to bribe local government officials to support the candidacy of Aquino’s bet, the lackluster Manuel A. Roxas 2nd. That money will, together with other funds lodged in the interior and local government, make up the largest vote-buying kitty this nation will have ever seen.

It was Aquino’s mother, Corazon, who in 1990 created that sort of fund and called it the Countrywide Development Fund, amounting to P2.3 billion. It became her means of buying the political support of local government officials to counter the coup attempts mounted against her.

More than two decades later, her son Benigno would allocate an average of P21 billion yearly in pork-barrel funds in his six years in power to secure enough Congress votes to do his bidding and stifle the opposition.

With it, and with another form of pork barrel on a bigger scale for senators – called the Disbursement Acceleration Fund – Aquino was able to assault the Supreme Court and remove Chief Justice Renato Corona from office in a desperate attempt by the Aquino clan to squeeze billions of pesos in compensation for its Hacienda Luisita.
pork20160104The power of the pork-barrel continues to work as Aquino wields it: getting Congress to pass his Reproductive Health bill; very nearly passed the unamended Bangsamoro Basic law before the year-end; maintaining his hold on Congress so much so that he has escaped congressional scrutiny and impeachment for such utter failures in governance such as the Mamasapano massacre and the MRT-3 scandals.

It was the pork-barrel funds that have made Congress such a docile body as to lap Aquino’s feet as he threw in jail the leaders of the opposition, Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla.

For instance, why wouldn’t Eastern Samar representative Ben Evardone lick Aquino’s boots, given that under former President Gloria Arroyo, his district got only P30 million yearly in pork-barrel money, but in 2015 he got P290 million and will be getting P342 million this year? I just hope my old friend, former Malaya journalist Evardone, spends that huge money to help the poor in his district – one of the poorest areas in the country – and not to buy country mansions, much less to wine and dine and travel the globe first-class.

It is not an exaggeration to call Aquino’s six years in power as the pork-barrel regime that mouths righteous slogans. Pork barrel under the administrations of Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo averaged just P5 billion yearly. Under Aquino, pork-barrel funds have averaged P24 billion yearly, for a total of P145 billion during his six-year term.

Bribe money
Very few legislative bodies in the world now have pork-barrel schemes, as it is, first of all, indisputably a bribery scheme that eats into the integrity of legislators, making them beholden to the head of state, and therefore, undermining the republican system of checks and balances.

Secondly, it dissipates government funds, which should more appropriately be used for projects that require huge amounts of funds beyond the capacity of local governments, and which only the national government can amass. For instance, P24.7 billion this year will be used for 14,324 very small projects such as potable wells, birthing facilities, goat production and preservation of historical landmarks, which are the responsibility of local governments.

The P24.7 billion, instead, could be used as equity to raise P100 billion more for the national government to build a subway or another railway that could alleviate the worsening traffic in the capital or build an entirely new airport – which could ultimately boost the economy and consequently benefit the country’s poor. But the rationale for pork-barrel funds isn’t economics but politics, a way for a President to bribe Congress.

We, as a nation, continue to complain that we have weak infrastructure because we don’t have the money to fund their rehabilitation or construct new ones. That’s not really true. We have the money, but we dissipate its use.

A truly reformist government would have scrapped the pork-barrel system, using the outrage over the (Janet) Napoles scam as an opportunity to do so. Aquino even expanded it, claiming that it has made the budget “responsive to the needs of the Filipino people.” That’s utter hogwash; “responsive to congressmen’s demands” is more accurate. Aquino’s legacy would be a pork-barrel scheme his successors are likely to find difficult to scrap.

It is not his success in fighting corruption, nor his “good governance” that explains Aquino’s wide political support in Congress. It is the money – taxpayers’ money – that he has been distributing every year to our very opportunistic congressmen.

Ironically, Aquino ramped up pork-barrel spending when that kind of government expenditures was exposed the past two years as so vulnerable to large-scale corruption, with legislators not just pocketing a percentage of the funds but stealing everything by utilizing non-existent NGOs and falsifying documents. That is what is now known as the infamous Janet Napoles scandal, named after the alleged mastermind of one part of the grand pork-barrel scheme that has outraged the nation. Yet Aquino has acted as if there had been no such earth-shaking corruption exposé.

Aquino has demonstrated his lack of respect for the rule of law by continuing pork-barrel allocations, even increasing them, after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2013.

Aquino and Abad simply gave it a new name – “Bottom-up Budgeting” projects and created the illusion that the legislators had no role in choosing the projects to be funded. The two, however, simply made it a pencil-pushing exercise by having each congressman submit the projects he wants for his district that are contained in the list of BUB projects , 14,324 for 2016, before the budget is passed into law.

This is to go around the Supreme Court decision that ruled the pork-barrel system as unconstitutional since the Constitution gives only the executive branch, and not the legislative, the authority to implement a government project.

However, the BUB projects are not listed with such details as, where exactly a deep-well would be constructed, for instance, which gives the local congressman the covert power to choose the specific location and, therefore, have a say in its implementation.

The spirit of the Supreme Court decision declaring pork-barrel illegal is contained in the definition given for it: “An appropriation of government spending meant for localized projects and secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district.”

BUB projects obviously fit that description. But no one has brought a case before the Supreme Court questioning why Aquino has defied its ruling.

Such is what our country has become.

Next week: Abad’s Batanes: “What are we in power for?”

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