Mon, 17 Jun 2019

CMFR file photo.

IN 2013, the Supreme Court declared pork barrel as unconstitutional, the name given to the practice inserted allocations, also known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), in the national budget. Nearly six years after, the multimillion peso discretionary fund for lawmakers is back and in even bigger amounts.

CMFR dealt with the coverage of the word war between Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and legislators in a previous monitor in December 2018, when media merely followed the exchange of allegations with little explanatory background, leaving out information that could have highlighted the importance of the issue.

As Congress rushed to pass the budget on the last day of session on February 8, media was stuck in the same pattern of reporting lawmakers claims and counterclaims. Coverage failed to clarify what constitutes pork in the budget, with hardly any reference to the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that struck down PDAF as unconstitutional. Absent that reference or knowledge among reporters, coverage also failed to report the glaring loophole that had given the Lower House the justification for their insertions.

Media reported Congress ratification of the budget as a separate event, as though the months long debate about pork and how these insertions were made never happened.

CMFR monitored the three Manila broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and the Manila Bulletin),four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2s TV Patrol, GMA-7s 24 Oras, TV5s Aksyon, CNN Philippines News Night) and selected online news sites from January 29 to February 12.

Pointing Fingers

Media reports relied heavily on Sen. Panfilo Lacsons revelation that the 2019 budget held pork for members of both legislative chambers, the House and the Senate.

In a misguided attempt to be objective, media gave equal importance to both Houses defense of their alleged insertions without discernment. Reports showed that the Senate justified their institutional amendments by saying these were requested by specific agencies, while the lower House claimed that their insertions were line items terms which unfortunately were not explained.

All parties claimed innocence and blamed each other. With all the finger-pointing, no one was held accountable for the alleged insertions. Media could have reported beyond the crossfire by recalling the decision of the High Court.

Budget Process

Missing in reports were basic background information such as definition of terms (pork barrel, line item, insertion) as well as any information on the budget process and the different responsibilities of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Congress.

Most reports did not refer to the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that ruled pork as unconstitutional, declaring that the pork barrel violated the principle of separation of powers in allowing legislators to wield authority in vital areas of budget execution and that it should never again be adopted in any system of governance, by any name or form. But a quick look into the decision would have revealed the apparent loophole, as pointed out by columnist Peter Wallace in his Inquirer opinion piece prior specification of need or specified singular purpose" as stated in the ruling.

Wallace is referring to Section 27. The court clarified: an item of appropriation must be an item characterized by singular correspondence-meaning an allocation of a specified singular amount for a specified singular purpose, otherwise known as a line-item. The Court did not rule that lump-sum, discretionary fund allocations in the national budget are illegal or unconstitutional, if these allocations specify a singular amount for a specified singular purpose. And there lies the problem.

In other words, the Supreme Court decision allowed legislators some form of specific allocations for specific purposes.

But with or without this reference, media should have questioned why the budget should allocate to members of the House of Representatives equal amounts of a minimum PHP160 million regardless of the different sizes and needs of their respective constituencies and congressional districts.

By whatever name, pork was left as a vague notion in the news, triggering debate that remained unresolved.

Budget Passed

Despite medias heavy coverage of Sen. Lacson's anti-pork crusade, his objections and those of opposition lawmakers, were marginalized in the legislature. On February 8, the bicameral congress managed to set aside their differences and passed the PHP3.757 trillion 2019 budget. The Star reported that the Senate and the House will share PHP99 billion worth of pork barrel funds. In his Inquirer column, Cielito Habito said this amounts to at least PHP160 million each for congressmen and PHP3 billion each for senators. This is a far cry from the amounts allocated in 2010, which were at P70 million and P200 million respectively.

Media treated the ratification as breaking news. Reports did not point out that the Senate had only three weeks to examine the budget. In contrast, the House took five months in 2018 to review the budget causing delay and forcing a reenacted budget. Most media also failed to scrutinize the bicameral budget report, highlighting the biggest allocations going to what department or agency.

Obviously, the reporters assigned to the beat had not read up on the subject, did not have the necessary background nor understanding of the issues involved at least not enough to question the huge amounts that legislators were setting aside for the benefit of their constituencies. The practice of pork has been so mired in scandal and corruption, draining funds from much needed services and projects into private coffers that it is somewhat surprising for the media to miss the obvious opportunity to fulfill the assigned function of true watchdog of the abuse of power.

Pork barrel by any other name be it Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), as it was originally called in 1990, Priority Development Assistance Fund, institutional amendment or line item is money that can be diverted to other less public use, deserving of the name pork.

The power of the purse has been given new meaning by the current Congress with placed it beyond the reach of law.

Pork Barrel Glossary

institutional amendment - amendment in the budget as requested by different agencies

line item - specified singular amount for a specified singular purpose

pork barrel/earmark - commonly referred to as lump-sum, discretionary funds of Members of the Legislature

Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) - used "to fund priority programs and projects under the ten point agenda of the national government and shall be released directly to the implementing agencies"

A brief history of the Supreme Court ruling

On November 19, 2013, the Supreme Court announced its unanimous landmark decision striking down lawmakers Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) as unconstitutional. In the 72-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, the Court said it seeks to rectify an error which has persisted in the chronicles of our history.

Besides the PDAF, the Court also declared illegal provisions in laws that allowed the President to use the Malampaya Fund and the Presidents Social Fund (PSF) for purposes beyond the mandate of these funds. The Court also directed prosecutorial agencies like the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate and prosecute all officials and private individuals for possible criminal offenses related to the irregular, improper and unlawful disbursement of all funds under the pork barrel system.

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