The Supreme Court’s crucial role

A lot of vagueness attends current discussions of the pork barrel. The lack of precision in the use of terms complicates questions like: what to abolish, who has the power to abolish, and how to reform the system. The ongoing hearings at the Supreme Court have clarified the meanings of many of the terms we take for granted. It is fascinating to see how issues are differently framed by the courts, by the media, by academe, and by the antipork movement.

The main question raised to the high court is not about the pork barrel system itself, which can take various forms in different countries. It is, rather, specifically about a lump-sum appropriation found in the present national budget or the General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2013, a law passed by Congress. This lump-sum expenditure goes by the name “Priority Development Assistance Fund” (PDAF), from which members of Congress are allowed to draw the funds they need for their special projects. The PDAF in the 2013 budget has a remaining balance of more than P13 billion. But, the same lump-sum provision appears in the proposed 2014 budget, with P25 billion allotted to it.

In response to urgent petitions, the high court had issued a temporary restraining order on the release of the remaining PDAF for 2013. The petitioners are asking the Court to declare the fund unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Prior to this, a few days before the “Million People March” at Luneta, President Aquino hastily called a press conference at which he announced that it was time to abolish the PDAF. Appearing with him in what was clearly an effort to project unanimity of intention were Speaker of the House Feliciano Belmonte and Senate President Franklin Drilon. The public was thus made to believe that the PDAF was indeed on its way to being scrapped. This is where, I think, the confusion began.

Speaking for the government, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza last week asked the Supreme Court to lift the TRO to enable the students and the sick who are listed as beneficiaries of lawmakers’ PDAF to receive the educational and medical assistance they need without delay. This prompted Justice Antonio Carpio to ask the Solgen why he thought it was still necessary to lift the TRO if the President had already abolished the PDAF. Jardeleza had to admit that the fund was still there. Carpio then reminded him that if the PDAF is part of the GAA, and is therefore a law, then only Congress can repeal it. The Supreme Court may declare it unconstitutional, he said, but the President does not have the authority to unilaterally scrap it.

Clearly, the balance from the 2013 PDAF, which is the subject of the TRO, is untouched, which is why some lawmakers are still hoping they could continue to draw from it. The President may delay releases from the fund, but unless the high court pronounces it unconstitutional, the fund remains at the disposal of Congress. Congress may pass a supplementary law to satisfy public objections to the PDAF.  But, at this point, given what the public has seen, no one believes that Congress is capable of coming up with anything that can protect the money from being stolen.

An unequivocal ruling by the high court is therefore crucial. It would have implications on the shape of the 2014 proposed budget, which the House of Representatives has passed on second reading. If the high court decides to treat the matter as a policy question to be settled by the political branches of government, I’m afraid this could be taken as a warrant to retain pork in the menu of Philippine politics.  But, using the Constitution as a guide, our magistrates may seize this rare opportunity to lecture our politicians on the modernist values that inform our system of government.

The lessons such a judicial lecture might encapsulate could include the following: (1) that the role of legislators in the budgetary process is to appropriate the funds necessary to achieve the collective purposes laid down by the representatives of the people in the national plan; (2) that, except as part of the review process of government’s performance, lawmakers must refrain from taking any interest in the actual administration of the budget after it is passed; (3) that Congress has the duty to limit lump-sum discretionary funds to the minimum necessary to take care of contingencies; and (4) that the use of public funds must always benefit the entire nation, and, therefore, social goods and services funded by public money must be accessible to every citizen in accordance with a transparent and rational system of priorities and eligibility.

Be that as it may, both the media and the public have already moved beyond the PDAF.  They have now zeroed in on all forms of discretionary funds—particularly those under the control of the President, like the revenue from the Malampaya natural gas wells and so-called government savings. As an academic, I am astounded by the open-ended nature of the chief executive’s power over these funds. While this may be in keeping with the traditional role of the leader in our culture as chief dispenser of benevolence, it has no place in a modern political system.

Indeed, there are many things we need to unlearn about the way government works, expectations rooted in the feudal structures of our society. The first of these is that leaders own government, and therefore can pass it on to their relatives as part of the family heirloom. If we, the people, are truly the boss, we do not need favors from politicians to access government. More important, we should be able to ask them at any time to account for the way they run government, and not have to wait until the next election.

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