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Opinion

Insertion

The broader view - Harry Roque - The Philippine Star

With greater transparency comes greater accountability. I have followed the dictum as a former member of the executive and legislative branches and even now as a private law practitioner. For instance, our taxpayers are entitled to know whether the government allocates or disburses their money wisely. They have the right to be informed if there is wastage or misuse of public coffers.

The 1987 Constitution articulates the paramountcy of full disclosure in all government transactions related to public interest and the right of the people to access official documents and records of public concern (Articles 2 and 3). It also precludes every senator and representative from intervening “in any matter before any office of the Government for his pecuniary benefit or where he may be called upon to act on account of his office” (Article 6, Section 14).

In the landmark Belgica vs. Ochoa case, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and all legal provisions of the Congressional Pork Barrel Laws. I argued the case for Petitioner Greco Belgica (with Liling Briones and Benjamin Diokno as co-petitioners) upon the prodding of former senator Ping Lacson.

Also declared violative of the Constitution are “Congressional Insertions, which authorize(d) lawmakers – whether individually or collectively organized into committees – to intervene, assume or participate in any of the various post-enactment stages of the budget execution, such as but not limited to the areas of project identification, modification and revision of project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment, unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.”

“Nowhere is public trust so important than in the management and use of the finances of government,” Justice Leonen enunciates in his separate concurring opinion.

In Abakada vs. Purisima, the Court ruled that “…from the moment the law becomes effective, any provision of law that empowers Congress or any of its members to play any role in the implementation or enforcement of the law violates the principle of separation of powers and is thus unconstitutional.”

Illegal

While Congress has the power of the purse, its project proposals are merely recommendatory in nature. Unfortunately, the existing jurisprudence seems to be lost on some legislators in the Lower House. The controversial P26.7-billion Kapos ang Kita Program (AKAP), a last-minute insertion into the 2024 General Appropriations Act budget, is compelling proof of their brazenness or ignorance of the law. Under the special provision budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the program intends to provide financial assistance to minimum wage earners belonging to the low-income category of low income who were seriously affected by rising inflation. The social welfare department, though, has yet to formulate any guidelines to implement AKAP.

Several senators led by the fearless ‘fiscalizer’ from Ilocos Norte, Imee Marcos, are up in arms over AKAP. The program’s belated inclusion in the approved national budget was without the tacit approval and knowledge of senators who sat in the bicameral conference committee. Marcos affixed her electronic signature to the budget version approved by the bicameral conference committee, which did not contain the multi-billion allocation for AKAP.

And like Senator Marcos, the AKAP insertion has caught the social welfare and budget departments flat-footed. In an interview with The STAR, the budget department disclosed that the program lacks the requisite implementing rules and regulations (IRR) for comprehensive disbursement. At a Senate hearing on people’s initiative, a DSWD official admitted being surprised but clarified that the program technically does not exist pending the issuance of guidelines. The series of events contradicts the call made by House committee on appropriations chair Rep. Elizaldy Co last November that the “spirit of unity and guided by the principles of transparency, accountability and the unwavering pursuit of the common good” should guide the bicameral budget deliberations (ABS-CBN News).

Indeed, the “magical” appearance of AKAP appropriation is highly questionable. After all, funding for the program was absent in the National Expenditure Plan (NEP), which the President submitted to Congress. It was nowhere to be found in the respective House and Senate versions of the 2024 General Appropriations bills. It was not a line item for DSWD in the approved version of the bicameral committee. The AKAP allocation only came about in the final version of the national budget that the President signed in December. In my view, it is a congressional insertion that has been ruled as illegal by the High Court.

Exposé

The “Super Ate” to the President also received reports that AKAP and other cash subsidy programs must all go through the office of House Speaker Martin Romualdez, who has admitted to facilitating discussions on the people’s initiative on Charter change. The senator has linked the AKAP budget to the signature drive per legislative district allegedly orchestrated by Romualdez and his House allies.

If this is true, I advise the Speaker to refrain from dipping his fingers in the project’s implementation phase. Again, the Court has stated that insertions that have conferred personal, discretionary funds or lump sums to legislators from which they can determine and fund specific projects are deemed unlawful.

I am glad we have a legislator with balls like Imee in the Senate. Her continued exposés of the “bribery initiative” and other dubious activities in the executive and legislative departments has certainly ruffled not a few feathers within the Romualdez-led majority coalition in Congress.

So far, her detractors have been unsuccessful in silencing her. Yesterday, she belied malicious accusations that she withheld the P13-billion budget for 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) in the 2023 appropriations. On the contrary, she has pushed for the retention of the DSWD budget to ensure the government’s unimpeded assistance to the countless beneficiaries. She explained that the unspent P8-billion 4Ps allotment was realigned to other implementable DSWD projects such as the supplemental feeding and Quick Response Fund for disasters. As regards the P5-billion AICS (Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation) budget, Imee recommended the amount in the Senate budget version. However, the bicameral committee removed it for lack of fiscal space post-pandemic.

I hope Senator Marcos remains committed to unmasking the shenanigans and monkey business in the current administration, even if it displeases his Ading (younger sibling) and further enrages the favored presidential cousin. The Filipino people need and deserve to know the truth.

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