House rushes pork-laden budget, then vacations

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The House of Reps rushed Wednesday night, Sept. 28, passage of the P5.268-trillion national budget for 2023. That amount is loaded with Legislative and Executive pork barrels. Congress will break for All Saints/All Souls Day, Oct. 1-Nov. 6.

House leaders patted themselves on the back for their speedy disposition of the people’s money. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had certified the budget bill “urgent.” That allowed congressmen to compress the second and third readings into one day, instead of three session days as the Constitution prescribes.

Congress’ calendar year revolves around the budget. Submitted to the House 30 days after the President’s State of the Nation, this year Aug. 22, the appropriations are supposed to be scrutinized by various committees and debated in plenary. Lawmakers then tackle other bills.

But not during breaks, like the five weeks for “Undas.” Session resumes Nov. 7-Dec. 16, then recess for Christmas Dec. 17-Jan. 22, 2023.

Of 311 district and sector congressmen, 289 voted “yes,” three “no,” zero abstention, 19 absent.

The House passed P2.25-billion confidential and P2.25-billion intelligence funds for the Office of President Marcos Jr. This repeats 2022’s P4.5-billion CIF, almost used up by president Rody Duterte before stepping down June 30.

Approved too was P2.31 billion for the office of Vice President Sara Duterte. This is nearly four times the average P639.47-million budget of former VP Leni Robredo in 2016-2022, independent opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman noted.

VP Duterte was given P500-million confidential fund for “national security and peace and order.” Only four times before were VPs given such fund: P6 million in 2019, P3 million in 2010, P6 million in 2011 and P9 million in 2012, totaling a relatively “miniscule” P24 million, Lagman added.

As secretary of education, VP Duterte was given a separate P150-million confidential fund. Kabataan party-list Rep. Raoul Manuel, aligned with the militant Makabayan bloc, said previous education chiefs had no such allocation.

Congressmen ignored Deputy Speaker Ralph Recto’s revelation last month of an unprogrammed P588 billion, separate from the P5.268 trillion. Malacañang presented the fund in lump sum, Recto told Sapol-dwIZ Sept. 10. “Only one-liners were stated, like P380.6-billion ‘support to foreign-assisted projects’ and P149.7-billion ‘support for infrastructure projects and social programs’,” he said. “More than double this year’s P251.7-billion unprogrammed fund, it is a blank check request.” To Recto’s request for details, budget officials retorted there is nothing illegal about it.

Hasty deliberations forestalled scrutinizing for congressional pork. Retired colonel Hector Tarrazona branded the P5.268-trillion budget “bloated.” “I say that because the current year’s P5.024 trillion is already bloated to accommodate the whims of the past admin,” he wrote in an open letter. “Mr. President, please stop the plunder.”

The Supreme Court in 2014 outlawed congressional pork, called at that time Priority Development Assistance Fund. Each senator then got a lump sum of P200 million a year and each congressman P80 million. The SC defined congressional pork as discretionary lump sums and similar funds that enable congressmen to implement Executive projects. Presidential pork are also discretionary lump sums that allow the Chief Executive or department heads “to determine the manner of utilization.”

Congress abolished the PDAF but continued the pork by other means. Funds are inserted in department budgets for the benefit of individuals or cabals of senators and congressmen.

Two forms of pork were exposed during deliberations for this year’s budget: one was a P28.1-billion “barangay development program” under the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. The Department of the Interior and Local Government said then that the money was for 1,406 villages. But suspicion was that it would be used for last May’s elections. No barangay was identified, no land area or population, no amount or project detail for each. “This is lump sum,” Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas said then.

Another was P10 billion labeled as “growth equity fund for local governments.” Again no breakdown of amounts, project details and beneficiaries. Malacañang merely said then it was for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-class municipalities.

In 18 years as senator, Panfilo Lacson saved the country over P300 billion in pork that would have gone to ghost projects and employees. Many of those he exposed during budget hearings were for “flood control projects,” that is, bogus immeasurable river dredging. At least P4 billion were to be pocketed per congressional district. To hide the loot, lawmakers “parked” the money in each other’s district allocations, to be withdrawn after budget approval.

House leaders went through the motions of “explaining for public transparency.” Presented were budget matrices in grandiose words and nine-to-twelve-digit amounts. International tests of students in the past decade showed Filipinos at the bottom in Math, Science and Reading Comprehension.

The public largely accepted the annual pork-laden budgets. Hailed by poor folk were such new legislations obligating electricity firms and private schools to grant subsidies. Such discounts are deducted from private incomes, not from lawmakers.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., dwIZ (882-AM).

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