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Fight for a congressional fiscal integrity continues

"The 'allowances' tiger changed its stripes and became CDF and PDAF, and there was no Philconsa to challenge it."

 

The filing last week of certificates of candidacy by three former senators prosecuted in connection with the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) has reminded the Filipino people of the persistence of the problem of irregular congressional intrusion in the implementation of the national budget, more formally known as the General Appropriations Act.

The discovery of the three senators’ allegedly criminal acts, and their subsequent prosecution, was largely accidental. They were offshoots of a circumstance that was not directly related to legislative activity, to wit, the filing of a criminal complaint filed against Janet Lim-Napoles for the abduction of a member of her office staff. They were not the results of government action directly related to the PDAF.

The uncovering of Janet Napoles’ giant PDAF-based scam—budgetary appropriations channeled, upon the direction of Mrs. Napoles, to non-existent projects—was done not by an entity devoted to the monitoring of government spending but by an enterprising staff-member of a news organization. Yet, once upon a time, that would not have been the case; Janet Napoles’ PDAF-related operations would have been exposed by an entity focused on ensuring the integrity of the national-budget implementation process. Philconsa (Philippine Constitution Association) was such an entity. I use the past tense—“was”—because Philconsa has ceased to be preoccupied with ensuring that the legislature operates on the basis of fiscal integrity.

Ensuring congressional integrity in fiscal matters was what brought together Philconsa’s founders. Alarmed by evidence that incumbent members of the two chambers of Congress were better able to finance their re-election campaigns—and thereby lessen the success prospects of their challengers —five men got together to try and get the Supreme Court to stop the head of the GAO (General Auditing Office, the predecessor of today’s Commission on Audit) from passing in audit payments to the Representatives and of amounts in excess of their statutory salaries. These payments, called “allowances,” were later renamed CDF (Countryside Development Fund) and, much later, PDAF. The Auditor-General then was a Caviteno named Pedro E. Gimenez.

Philconsa’s five founders—retired Supreme Court Justices Jose B. L. Reyes and Calixto Zaldivar, retired Central Bank Governor Miguel Cuaderno, Salvador Araneta and my late father Jose E. Romero (who passed away exactly 40 years today) organized Philconsa with the avowed intention of making their organization the guardian of congressional fiscal integrity.

No sooner had the ink on its registration papers dried than Philconsa filed with the Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice (and later member of the International Court of Justice) Cesar Bengzon, a case entitled Philippine Constitution Association vs. Pedro E. Gimenez, which sought to restrain GAO from passing in audit payments of “allowances” to the members of the two houses of Congress and thereafter to prohibit all future approvals of those payments. In its petition Philconsa argued that the Constitution mandated the payment to the members of Congress only of their salaries and verifiable travel expenses to and from their districts; all other payments were, therefore, unconstitutional and illegal.

The Supreme Court saw the merit of Philconsa’s core argument and ruled in its favor. Henceforth there were to be no payments of “allowances” to the members of the legislature; they were to be paid—and the GAO was to pass in audit—only their salaries and their verified travel expenses to and from Congress.

Philconsa’s founders had scored a brilliant victory for the Constitution—more specifically, the Constitutional principle that Congress approves, but must not be involved in the implementation of the national budget—and it should have remained the watchdog against fiscal impropriety on the part of the legislature. Unfortunately, the crusade begun by my father and his co-founders was not maintained by the succeeding Philconsa leaders. Keeping up the anti-allowances fight ceased to be a high-priority Philconsa activity. The “allowances” tiger changed its stripes and became CDF and PDAF and there was no Philconsa to challenge it.

The present Secretary of Budget and Management has been proclaiming to high heavens that there is no pork—the allowances of yore—in the national budget that is undergoing finalization. Philconsa’s founders would not have taken Secretary Diokno at his word.

Topics: Priority Development Assistance Fund , General Appropriations Act , Janet Napoles , Supreme Court , Countryside Development Fund
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