December 9, 2013 · Posted in: Access to Information, Civil Society, Congress Watch, Free Expression - Asia, Freedom of Information, General, Governance, Human Rights, Local Government, Money Politics, Online Research, The Internet, Youth and Education
AS PART OF THE worldwide commemoration of International Anti-Corruption Day, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has organized a public forum on the possible future steps that the citizenry can take on the issue of the pork barrel and other pork-like funds. The forum will involve public finance and legal experts such as former Budget Secretary Ben Diokno, former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, constitutional law expert Prof. Dan Gatmaytan, Commission on Audit Commissioner Heidi Mendoza, and citizen journalists, bloggers, and concerned citizens groups such as blogwatch and Filipino Freethinkers. This is a live blog on today’s discussions in Manila.
Dr. Benjamin Diokno, former Budget Secretary: “Pork is very much alive and kicking! It is just hidden in the departments’ budgets.”
Former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno warned that despite the announced removal of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) by President Benigno S. Aquino and the decision by the Supreme Court rendering PDAF unconstitutional, lump sum funds are still very much alive and just hidden in the seven major departments of the government.
Diokno said the PDAF was merely renamed and scattered across the different line agencies. Legislators however would still have power to identify projects to be funded by these funds. Diokno added that lump sum funds by themselves are patently illegal and unconstitutional, because they prevent the Executive from exercising his power to make a line veto of a specific budget proposal. Since the money is placed in a lump sum without any particulars on the spending, the Executive would not have the power to determine whether a veto could be exercised.
At the same time Diokno said that there are many other lump sum funds, different from PDAF, that are considered pork or pork-like. For example, special funds such as the Malampaya Fund, or royalties coming from the Malampaya gas fields production, are easily abused.
Diokno warned that while it may be tempting to tap into the Malampaya funds for post-Yolanda projects, one must be careful not to stray into unconstitutional or illegal activitiesl. For example, Diokno rejected proposals for the Malampaya funds to be used to restore the power grid in the VIsayas, for the simple reason that the power grid belongs to the private sector, while the Malampaya funds are public funds.
Dr. Leonor Briones, former National Treasurer, Convenor, Social Watch Philippines: There are more lump sum funds in the budget than the pork barrel
Dr. Briones pointed out that PDAF, which was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court and declared abolished by the President, only constitutes a very small portion of other pork like funds in the budget. The total PDAF for legislators amount to only P25.44 billion. In contrast, the President still has under his control some P283 billion under his Special Purpose Fund (SPF); direct remittances from other agencies amounting to P40 billion; intelligence funds amounting to P846 million; and unprogrammed funds of P 139 billion. Examples of unprogrammed and off-budget funds include P2 billion a year in revenues from the Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), P26 billion from the Malampaya Fund, and P12 billion from the Motor Vehicles Users Charge.
In fact, Briones said, legislators are alloted an extra P10 million each from the Motor Vehicle Users Charge over and above their PDAF. With all the lump sum items made available to national leaders, it is a wonder that there are so many places in the country which have not been showered with the grace of additional funding.
For example, Briones said that a large part of Northern Samar has never had electricity, way before supertyphoon Yolanda smashed through the area and topple electric posts.
Briones also noted how misaligned the budgeting appears to be. For example, Briones said that the poorest parts of the country appear to have the least amounts budgeted for their development. On the other hand, areas which are already well developed still get a windfall of funding. For instance, Briones said 58 percent of the national budget has been programmed for Luzon; 24 percent allocated for Mindanao; and only 18 percent is for the Visayas. “Yet the focus of the calamities has been Visayas,” Briones said. “But I would say that the political calamities are in Luzon.”
Professor Dan Gatmaytan, constitutional law expert, associate professor, UP College of Law: “The President is given far too much leeway on how to spend (lump sums.)”
University of the Philippines Law Professor Dante Gatmaytan explained the reasons why the Supreme Court ruled the PDAF as illegal. But Gatmaytan took it a step further by explaining why the many other lump sum funds in the national budget are unconstitutional as well.
Gatyamtan said the primary problem with PDAF, and with other lump sum funds, is the fact that the person given control over these funds have too much leeway and not enough checks and balances in place.
“Usually the President is given far too much leeway on how to spend (these lump sums.) We cannot do that,” Gatmaytan said. The best way to check on the constitutionality of these lump sums is by checking for “completeness” and “sufficient standards.”
“The law should lay down the guidelines or the limits in law to map out the boundaries of the authority and to prevent the delegation of this authority from running riot,” Gatyamtan said. “But the problem with Presidential pork is that it doesn’t (lay down the guidelines). It is a free for all.”
The operative phrase in the GAA regulating the use of lump sum funds, Gatmaytan said, is usually the phrase “and for such other uses as may be hereafter directed by the President.”
Gatmaytan said this phrase alone already renders moot all other attempts to regulate the use of presidential pork.
During the open forum, Professor Gatmaytan warned that legislators will use any way to restore the pork barrel in whatever form, especially now that the PDAF has been struck down as unconstitutional. For example, Gatmaytan cited the case of Mindoro Rep Rey Umali who was quoted in news reports as saying he was mulling the filing of an impeachment complaint against the Supreme Court Justices who voted against the PDAF. Umali, incidentally, is a member of the ruling Liberal Party.
“They will always think of ways to restore their entitlements,” Gatmaytan said. Briones however pointed out that pork has always been enjoyed by both the executive and the legislative.
Briones said it is not just the legislators who have benefited from pork, since the executive uses the pork to manipulate the legislators. “PDAF is used by the executive to convince Congress to pass their appropriations. It is a quid pro quo. The PDAF system has benefited both the executive and the legislature, and is used as a bargaining point.”
For his part, Diokno said legislators have threatened to hold the confirmation of certain cabinet secretaries unless they get what they want in terms of the pork barrel. This could be in the form of the release of their pork, to the implementation of the project itself.
“We need to change the rules,” Diokno said. “No one should sit until he is confirmed, just like in the US system. So that way, you cannot promise anything to Congress (in exchange for your confirmation.”
Diokno said the best way to safeguard against abuse of pork barrel is by strengthening the principles of transparency and accountability. For example, Diokno said a Freedom of Information act would be helpful in monitoring legislators and keeping them on their toes; as well, a more honest electoral system to ensure that the right people are elected to both Congress and the executive.
Commission on Audit Comm. Heidi Mendoza: “The issue of PDAF is a reflection of the weaknesses in the implementation of the procurement law.”
Commission on Audit Commissioner Heidi Mendoza stressed that the issue of PDAF is only the symptom of an even bigger problem – the failure to properly implement Republic ACt 9184, or AN ACT PROVIDING FOR THE MODERNIZATION, STANDARIZATION AND REGULATION OF THE PROCUREMENT ACTIVITIES OF THE GOVERNMENT, otherwise known as the Procurement Reform Law.
“When we look at the different reports, there was no bidding, bogus NGOs, no delivery – all of these are violations of RA 9184,” Mendoza said. “Nagkulang tayo sa implementation ng napakagandang batas.” Mendoza says the law itself was beautiful in that it institutionalized citizen involvement in the monitoring of the bidding and procurement process.
“The citizen can observe public procurement,” she said. “Kung tayo naging aktibo at tama ang pagpapatupad ng 9184, we would not have much to report in terms of how much PDAF was utilized.”
This, Mendoza said, is why it is important for citizens to be heavily engaged in what she calls the citizens participatory audit, an effort by the COA to involve more citizens in the business of governance.
Mendoza said the citizens participatory audit is hinged on the need to tap the local community so that they hold their leaders accountable.
As well, Mendoza stressed the need to engage students who are educated and idealistic. At the same time Mendoza echoed the statements of other speakers that the public should also look at other lump sum and pork-like funds and not just the controversial PDAF.
For example, Mendoza said the public should also monitor the use of internal revenue allotments, called the lifeblood of the local government units. Mendoza said that the same issues that afflict the PDAF also afflict the IRA, which is not as controversial and closely monitored as the PDAF is now.
“Magkakamaganak ang mga ito.” Mendoza said.
As well, Mendoza said there needs to be closer monitoring of the 20 percent development fund given to barangays, which are sometimes just used for junkets to gain the support of barangay officials; and the special education fund, which is supposed to be used by the city schools.
In one instance, Mendoza said, a municipality simply bought gift certificates using these funds and distributed these to the teachers.
At the same time Mendoza announced that the COA would be launching a “Relief Tracker” to engage citizens and governments in the monitoring of how much aid has come in for victims of supertyphoon Yolanda and where this aid had gone. Mendoza said the relief tracker would include cash donations and goods from both local and international sources.
The relief tracker, Mendoza said, was developed by volunteer citizens with the participation of COA. Local and international donors would be given an access code so that they can upload data on how much they had donated for the relief effort.
“Our objective is to determine the total basket of funds that went into disaster,” Mendoza said.
Karol Ilagan PCIJ Research Director: Some reform, but many old problems.
PCIJ Research Director Karol Ilagan said that while there have been some reforms in the way the pork barrel was being handled by the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III, there were still many issues that remain that make the pork barrel a hub of patronage and politicking.
For example, the Aquino administration introduced a menu of projects that legislators should only choose from, as designated by the implementing agencies.
As well, the projects must match the priority list provided by the agency. The project must also prioritize 4th to 6th class municipalities, and the project details must also be posted in the implementing agency’s website.
However, a study by the PCIJ showed the following:
- Lawmakers still chose the project, the beneficiary, the implementing agency, and in some cases, the NGOs that would implement the project on the ground;
- Lawmakers also poured their pork in their bailiwicks instead of in poor and needy towns;
- Senators flooded the national capital region and other vote-rich provinces with their pork;
- Legislators spent much of their pork on consumable items which are hard to monitor and good for only one use;
- There was a lot of cheap, short term infrastructure projects;
- There were instances of project duplication.
Ilagan also demonstrated the links on pork barrel disbursements and spending by legislators in the PCIJ’s MoneyPolitics Online website. The site features databases on pork barrel spending by members of the 15th Congress, pork-funded public works projects, public works projects awarded by government from 2001 to April 2013, and audit reports on pork-funded projects. These databases are new entries on the PCIJ’s Money Politics Online website.
Learnings by and from the “crowd”: Shifting strategies in 2014
Representatives from the online community, citizen journalists, civil society groups, and the youth sector agree on the need to continue and escalate the campaign against all lump sum funds in the budget in 2014 and beyond.
However, there may be a need to shift strategies in light of the Supreme Court decision declaring the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional.
Noemi Dado, editor of BlogWatch and a member of the #ScrapPorkNetwork, noted the need to draw the public’s attention to the other lump sum funds that remain in the budget even with the removal of the PDAF.
While the pork of legislators was an issue that was easy to unite against, there have been some disagreements within civil society on whether the President’s own pork should be removed as well.
“Not everyone was convinced that presidential pork should be abolished,” Dado said. “There were just those who loved the President.”
In addition, even the media seemed to have lost some interest in the other pork-like funds in the budget, as may be seen in the lesser volume of stories on lump sum funds after the SC struck down the PDAF.
What the campaign needs now, Dado says, is a “shift in the fulcrum to smaller venues such as schools and workplaces.”
“We need school-based and work-based organizations (to carry the campaign forward),” Dado said. “We need to take an active role as citizens, and bombard legislators with our message.”
But in the end, Dado said there was a need for all campaigners to “study, and study more” the issue of lump sum funds. Those who advocate issues must be the first to understand the issues before they can interest and engage the public.
Dado also noted the need for everyone to “get out, and not just stay online.”
one of the videos produced by the #ScrapPorkNetwork
Juned Sonido, another blogger, and Red Tani of the Filipino Freethinkers, noted the need to craft messages that are are sharp, clear, and compelling to renew the public’s interest in all things pork.
Sonido warned against “information overload,” saying this could discourage citizens who may otherwise be tapped in the campaign. The challenge, Sonido said, is to translate the information about pork and package it as messages that ordinary people can relate to.
Sonido also warned that netizens should be cognizant of the digital divide where only a third of Filipinos have access to the internet. As such, an online campaign will only have a significant impact if the campaigners are able to use the online platforms to move people into action: Use online platforms to make people act offline, so to speak.
Tani for his part spoke of the many ways by which anti-pork campaigners could capture audiences just by being more creative and clear.
There are many tools in the internet to snazz up graphics and video clips to deliver the message to an uninterested public, Tani said. You can be as creative as you want, Tani added, so long as your message sticks to the facts.
Tani pointed out that a common misconception is that social media activists have an easy and willing audience. In truth, he said, social media activists need to compete with a whole lot of other topics that can draw the eyeballs – everything from pornography to cats.
“The challenge is how to deliver the message creatively,” Tani said. “You have to find that balance, how to compromise so that your message is delivered clearly.”
Tani pointed to what he called “the disaster effect,” where people are moved into action by a recent disaster, and then go back into hibernation between disasters.
Tani also said that anti-pork campaigners should be wary of the “bystander effect,” where people may be interested in an issue, but lull themselves into thinking that someone else is already doing something about the problem.
“The danger is that everyone things that someone else will do something that matters,” Tani said.
Students from various universities in and outside Metro Manila also pitched in.
One student said his school already has a “pork class” where students and teachers come together informally to discuss the pork barrel issue outside their class schedules. Yet another student proposed that the pork issue be included in the curriculum of students.
The proposal was further refined to one where schools should include subjects that emphasize the need for both transparency and accountability in government, as well as civic action on the part of the public.
Yet another proposal called for subjects that encourage more critical thinking in Philippine schools, so that students are encouraged to challenge assertions made by their community leaders, and put these assertions to the test.
All however agreed on the need for more openness and transparency in governance as a first step in preventing abuse and limiting the discretionary nature of lump sum funds.