Some stubborn and grasping members of the House of Representatives just can’t get themselves to quit juicy pork.
Fears that these legislators are once again out to have a healthy helping of outlawed pork barrel were raised after Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte, deputy speaker for finance, unexpectedly withdrew the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) for 2020 on Aug. 28, the same day it was submitted for first reading by House appropriations committee chair and Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab.
Villafuerte argued that the withdrawal of House Bill No. 4228 was just a matter of procedure, on grounds that discussions with all government agencies had not yet been concluded, and that the House had the power to “allocate or amend budgetary items.”
Ungab immediately protested the move, telling Villafuerte in a letter that any alteration to the GAB, which is a “faithful” reproduction of the executive department’s National Expenditure Program, “will surely raise doubts on our proceedings and the House will be questioned on why it will alter the proposed budget.”
Villafuerte wanted to make “insertions,” Ungab told reporters. The favored target was, as usual, the public works budget; legislators wanted P70-P90 billion of these funds reallocated to projects in their own districts. Some 68 lawmakers were said to be pushing for these insertions.
Villafuerte vehemently denied the presence of pork barrel funds in the proposed budget, but did say that several lawmakers were “dissatisfied” with some line items in the 2020 national budget due to the supposed inequitable distribution of allocations.
Tinkering with the budget to accommodate “insertions” would be costly, and this year’s economic performance is proof enough. The country’s economy grew by a disappointing 5.5 percent in the second quarter this year, slower than the 6.2-percent expansion in GDP last year and, already, the slowest in more than four years.
The main culprit? The delayed approval of the 2019 budget, which forced the country to work under the reenacted 2018 budget for the first quarter, thus preventing the government from spending about P1 billion a day on crucial public goods and services from the start of the year. That ruinous delay was caused by the budget fracas in the last Congress, mostly over charges of pork; President Duterte was able to sign the P3.7-trillion budget only in the middle of April, at which time the government was already hampered from pursuing infrastructure projects because of the election ban. Mr. Duterte also struck down some P95.3 billion worth of budgetary items “inserted” by lawmakers.
This time, House leaders have been quick to assure the public that a delay will not be tolerated, and that the 2020 budget would be “pork-free.” After Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano met with both Ungab and Villafuerte, the budget approval schedule went back on track; the report on the proposed national budget was approved by the House committee on appropriations on Sept. 9 “without insertions,” as confirmed by Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez. However, according to columnist Jarius Bondoc, congressmen are still set to receive P300 million each, for a total of P90 billion in discretionary funds.
Romualdez has attempted to deodorize the gargantuan allocations through semantics—by saying they’re specified as line items in the budget anyway, and so different from the old lump-sum system disallowed by the Supreme Court in 2013. “Definitely, the pork barrel system is a thing of the past. Line-item budgeting system will be strictly observed to ensure transparency and accountability in the disbursement of public funds,” he said.
“That’s hogwash,” countered Bondoc. “In illegalizing the corrupt practice, the SC gave a third all-encompassing definition. That is, that all permutations of the self-awarding of funds are pork too. That includes personal insertions made during budget deliberations aimed to benefit individual congressmen. In effect, congressional insertions defy SC verdicts, which are part of the laws of the land. They thus promote lawlessness—by the favored few members of the political elite.”
Legislators in the last Congress engaged in an ugly, drawn-out brawl with Malacanang, the Senate and each other over billions of pesos of pork, and sapped the country’s economic momentum in the process. The House leadership now promises more sedate proceedings—there won’t be a scrimmage, much less a delay in the measure’s passage. But junking pork? Hey now, that’s like asking for the moon.
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