SC saviors and pork barrel's 'original sin'
MANILA, Philippines – What is the crux of objections to the pork barrel? What ultimately led to the abuse of the system?
To petitioners questioning the system’s legality, giving lawmakers the power to interfere in the execution of projects after the passage of the budget is what they call the “original sin.”
During Supreme Court oral arguments, counsel for the petitioners Alfredo Molo III said this “sin” violated fundamental principles enshrined in the Constitution. (READ: 'PDAF, Malampaya illegal on its face' – Carpio)
The Court is tackling 3 petitions questioning the constitutionality of the pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), and the so-called presidential pork or the use of the Malampaya fund for purposes other than energy development, and the President’s Social Fund (PSF). (READ: SC stops release of PDAF, Malampaya fund)
“The pork barrel destroys checks and balances. The original sin is giving legislators direct interest in the smooth [passage] of the budget,” Molo said in the proceedings on Tuesday, October 8.
“Lawmakers are playing an active role in the PDAF. It’s not their job to assist the executive agencies [in the execution of the project]. They’re not allowed to execute. They are participating after the law has come into effect.”
Molo said that aside from checks and balances, the pork barrel system also violates the principle of separation of powers of the different branches of government.
“The PDAF allows legislators post-enactment [of the budget] to execute projects. It crosses the line between the executive and the legislative [branches].
“These are not just recommendations that lawmakers do. The [budget department] circular affirms that the department cannot substitute the preference of a legislator. The implementing agencies themselves say they never identify the projects.”
Molo said that any act of a lawmaker in relation to the project after the passage of the budget is unconstitutional.
Evolution of the pork
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno showed the evolution of the pork barrel and repeatedly asked Molo if practices added to the system were unconstitutional. Molo said yes if the act was done after the budget’s passage.
Raymond Fortun, counsel for petitioner Jose Villegas Jr, said the question was how the executive power was being implemented.
“Ang executive ang dapat mag-implement. What’s happening is you have Congress coming back, putting its dirty hands sa proyekto na sila mismo nag-propose. Nakikialam sila eh dapat ang power to implement nasa local officials,” Fortun said in an interview.
(The executive should implement the project, but Congress comes back, puts its dirty hands in the project that they themselves proposed. They are interfering even if it’s the local officials who have the power to implement.)
Only the petitioners were able to present their arguments on Tuesday. The respondents will make their case on Thursday, October 10.
The respondents in the case are Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Senate President Franklin Drilon, and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. They are represented by the Office of the Solicitor General.
‘Complete breakdown of controls’
The justices asked the petitioners whether or not the abuse of the pork barrel system as seen in the pork barrel scam can already be addressed by the executive and legislative branches.
In the pork barrel scam, lawmakers allegedly endorsed their development funds to fake non-governmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks as big as 50% of the ghost project. The Aquino administration said it can address the problem by changing the current pork barrel system to include more safeguards.
“We are sensitive to the fact that we are not politicians. There are political solutions. We have to know whether it’s time to step in,” Sereno said.
The Chief Justice told Molo, “If you want us to fill in the problem because [there is] systems failure, you must give us the constitutional basis to step forward.”
Before the start of the proceedings, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza told reporters that the government maintains that the problem requires a “political solution.”
“The Congress as the political branch is given the first crack at having reforms and they are listening to the people. The reforms are in the GAA, [the budget passed on second reading in the House] does not contain PDAF anymore,” Jardeleza said.
Laywer Eduardo Bringas from the petitioners’ side disagreed.
“Reforms of the legislative do not deter the commission of anomalies. That’s the reason we have the COA (Commission on Audit) report,” said Bringa.
Fortun agreed that the system was already a failure, and reforms will not be enough.
“The executive and legislative say we will make the policies to avoid anomalies. The problem is they both hold the funds so how can we trust them? Ever since the CDF (Countrywide Development Fund), we gave them the chance to correct themselves. We gave them 13 years to change the PDAF system. They put the safeguards. Now what happened to those safeguards? We simply cannot allow these people to continue making changes for us. We have to go to the SC,” Fortun told reporters.
The CDF was the former name of the PDAF, and was also tainted with scandal in 1996.
COA Chairperson Grace Pulido Tan, appearing as a resource person, said the scam was not just a systems failure.
“We’re saying this is not just systems failure but a complete breakdown of controls. If you look at the legal framework, there are a lot of laws, regulations, but somehow in the enforcement, the way the system itself was designed, the controls failed."
Who’s the savior?
While criticizing the “original sin” in the PDAF system, petitioners like defeated senatorial bet Samson Alcantara said only the High Court can be the “savior.”
“Filipino people are losing confidence in the political branches of government. Their only hope now is with this honorable court. To restore people’s trust and faith in their public officials, do away with political patronage and ensure expenditure of public funds only for public purposes. This honorable court will not just be regarded as reformer but a savior of this country,” Alcantara said.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen though questioned the argument. Like Sereno, he told the petitioners to expound in writing why the court must step in.
“Isn’t it unfair that the only burden in correcting the system is with the court? Shouldn't we say it's also with the legislature and executive and we will do our part in correcting it?”
“The presentation in your pleadings is it seems we are saviors but the truth is the Filipino people [working with the government] are the saviors.”
On Tuesday, former Chief Justice Reynato Puno urged anti-pork barrel advocates to use the people's initiative mechanism to propose a law to scrap all forms of discretionary funds. – Rappler.com