Ellen Tordesillas

The biggest pork

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Malacañang, it turns out, doesn’t have barrels of pork. What it has are entire stockyards of meat that it dispenses to whomever it chooses, in the manner and the amounts that the President alone decides.

 

Pork barrel funds, by their definition, give the official to whom they are assigned the discretion to disburse them. In the case of Congress, the senators and the congressmen who are given allocations of P200 million and P70 million in Priority Development Assistance Funds annually, to be spent on projects of their choice, the discretion—and the possibility of abusing this discretion—is clear.

On the other hand, disbursements of official funds for programmed and specified projects, like those given to the Department of Public Works and Highways, for example, are not pork. DPWH (or any other government agency that is given funds for specific projects, for that matter) has very little discretion in the spending of these official monies, from the stringent bidding and procurement procedures to the audits that have to be completed once a project is done.

Indeed, pork is easily identified by the lump-sum, unprogrammed allocations for both Congress and the Office of the President. The less detail, the wider the discretion and— naturally—the more opportunity for corruption.

It is in this context that allegations that the national budget contains up to P1 trillion in pork in the control and subject to the sole discretion of President Noynoy Aquino, as alleged by budget activist and former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, should be understood. Pork is not exclusive to Congress, according to Briones; Aquino’s office has the biggest pork of all, contained in the General Appropriations Act, which is submitted to Congress for approval by Malacanang every year.

The Palace has submitted a P2.3-trillion national budget for 2014. But the programmed and specified expenses that regular state agencies receive amount to only about P1.6 trillion of that total—with the rest being unprogrammed lump-sum allocations that cannot be released, according to Briones and Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares, without the direct approval of Aquino himself.

Among the big-ticket items in the presidential version of pork are P229 billion in “special purpose funds”; a lump-sum appropriation of P200 billion for school buildings that is directly released by Aquino;  “unprogrammed funds” amounting P139.9 billion; and the intelligence funds, internal revenue allotments, funds for debt servicing, the presidential “social fund” and travel funds of the Office of the President.

The presidential pork may actually get bigger by yearend, according to Briones and Colmenares, because a Department of Budget and Management directive allows Aquino’s office to confiscate programmed funds given to other agencies that have not been used by yearend. And none of these presidential funds undergo the usual disbursement procedures that apply to regular government agencies, thus giving Aquino the power over all of them.

* * *

Given the huge amount of pork controlled by Aquino, the reluctance of the Executive to investigate Congress’ PDAF comes as no surprise. How can the Palace go after the supposed theft of Congress’ pork through such schemes as those allegedly perfected by Janet Lim Napoles if the Aquino has the same power of discretion over monies that are several orders of magnitude larger than the already staggering amounts that our lawmakers control?

Understand, Napoles would not have been able to pull off the alleged scams that she was supposed to have dreamed up, if lawmakers were not allowed to identify the beneficiaries of their funds – in this case, the fake non-government organizations that she put up. If Congress’ projects were identified beforehand as line items in the national budget while it was being deliberated upon, lawmakers would forfeit their power of identifying who would receive them and, subsequently, lose the chance to take kickbacks through enterprising people like Napoles.

This after-the-fact identification of the beneficiaries of pork barrel spending lies at the heart of the controversy that is now consuming Congress. But Aquino’s office has similar funds in much bigger amounts – and nobody calls them pork.

“Most of the lump-sum appropriations give the President the discretion [over who gets what and how much],” Colmenares said. “Why are such funds for congressmen and senators called pork, but not similar funds of the President?”

Briones and Colmenares are demanding that Aquino and his budget secretary, Florencio Abad, disclose in detail how the Office of the President intends to disburse the humongous funds at its sole disposal. But Abad dismissed the demand, asking if anyone can believe that nearly half of Aquino’s budget for next year is nothing but pork.

But Abad had better take the accusations of presidential pork seriously, if he knows what’s good for him and his boss. More and more Filipinos are getting scandalized by the Napoles controversy, with the almost daily disclosures of huge kickbacks and of the opulent lifestyle of the family of a retired Marine major.

At this point, it appears that it is no longer a question of if pork barrel funds, whoever controls them, will have to go. It’s already become a matter of when – unless those who have pork want to reap the whirlwind of public ire.

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