Govt loses pork barrel

Voting 14-0, SC declares system unconstitutional

THE Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel unconstitutional.

Start of oral arguments. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (inset) bangs the gavel as the Supreme Court starts hearing the oral arguments for and against the Disbursement Acceleration Program. Earlier, the high court  declared the congressional pork barrel unconstitutional. Sonny Espiritu
Voting 14-0, the magistrates also declared as unconstitutional the provisions in two presidential decrees that authorized the disbursement of the Malampaya Fund and the President’s Social Fund, respectively, “for such other purposes as may be... directed by the President” and “to finance the priority infrastructure development projects.”

The Court also declared illegal all provisions of past and present congressional pork barrel laws such those covering the PDAF and Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) that gave legislators lump-sum allocations and the authority to intervene and participate in identifying projects to be funded through PDAF.

The Court ordered the government’s prosecutorial arms to investigate and file appropriate charges against public officials and private individuals for criminal offenses, in connection with the irregular, improper or unlawful disbursement or use of all funds under the pork barrel system.

The Justice Department has already filed plunder and malversation charges against three opposition senators -- Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy

Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. -- and 34 other respondents led by detained businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, who has been tagged as the architect of the P10 billion pork barrel scam.

The decision, written by Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas Bernabe, was “immediately executory but prospective in effect,” and made permanent the Court’s Sept. 10, 2013 temporary restraining order stopping the further release of pork barrel for the rest of 2013 and Malampaya funds for non-energy-related projects.

The court also barred the release of funds sourced from the President’s Social Fund under the phrase ‘to finance the priority infrastructure development projects’ as covered by two presidential decrees. These funds were not be disbursed or released but instead returned to the general coffers of government, except for those allocated for the specific purposes set out by the Malampaya Fund and the Presidential Social Fund.

Only Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. inhibited himself.

Separate opinions were written by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who only concurred in the result, Senior Justice Antonio T. Carpio, and Justice Marviv M.V.F. Leonen.

In ruling against the lawmakers’ discretionary funds, the Court held that PDAF and previous pork barrel funds violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers of the executive and legislative branches as it “allowed legislators to wield, in varying gradations, non-oversight, post-enactment authority in vital areas of budget executions.”

It said the pork barrel system also violated the constitutional principle on “non-delegability of legislative power” by allowing lawmakers to fund specific projects they themselves determine.

The pork barrel system, including the earlier Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) and the practice of congressional insertions in the national budget, also denied the President the power to veto items, the justices said.

Besides, they added, PDAF “impaired public accountability” and “subverted genuine local autonomy.”

The Court specifically rejected the practice of allowing lawmakers to intervene or participate in executing the budget after it had been enacted, including areas such as project identification.

The provisions conferring personal, lump sum allocations to legislators from which they are able to fund specific projects that they themselves determined were also illegal, added the high court.

The justices rejected the argument by Congress that the Supreme Court already upheld the constitutionality of the pork barrel system in previous cases.

Although the Court granted most of the issues raised in the petitions against PDAF, the Malampaya Fund and the President’s Social Fund, it rejected certain appeals “due to improper recourse and lack of proper substantiation.”

The Court rejected a petition that the Executive Secretary or the Budget Department be made to provide the public and the Commission on Audit complete, detailed reports on how the funds were used.

It said, however, that the denial was made without prejudice and could be pursued by a separate petition.

The justices also denied the petitioners plea that the funds be subject to the budgetary deliberations of Congress, saying this was best left to the prerogative of the political branches of government.

The petitions against PDAF, Malampaya Fund, and the Presidential Social Fund were filed by the Social Justice Societe through its president, Samson S. Alcantara, Greco Antonious Beda B. Belgica, and Pedrito M. Nepomuceno.

Respondents in the cases were the Office of the Executive Secretary, Congress, and the Department of Budget and Management.

“It is a victory for all of us, especially during the ‘new normal’ we now live in. This decision frees up money that can be used to enact programs and build structures to protect and relieve our countrymen from calamities that are becoming more frequent and stronger,” said lawyer Alfredo Molo, counsel for the petitioners. “Today, corruption is no longer just a socio-political issue, it is a question of survival.”

He added that the voting sent a strong message, which is what the country needs.

“Accountability and constitutionality won today,” he said.

In its petition, the SJS said the pork barrel system is unconstitutional because of it made a mockery of the constitutional mandate on accountability, honesty, and integrity of public officers.

The group asked the Court to stop the Senate and the House of Representatives from appropriating funds for “pork barrel in whatever form and by whatever name it may be called.”

The PDAF is an annual allocation in the national budget for members of Congress to cover expenditures for projects identified by senators and congressmen.

In the proposed 2014 General Appropriatins Act, the amount proposed for PDAF is about P25.2 billion.

They also said the pork barrel system allows the Executive Department to have control over lawmakers, thus, violating the constitutional principle on separation of powers.

Senate President Franklin Drilon described the ruling as moot and academic, since 15 senators, representing a majority of the Senate, have decided to abandon their pork barrel allocations.

“We will welcome the decision... We will abide by the decision of the Supreme Court,” Drilon told reporters.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the decision was no surprise because he always felt that PDAF was unconstitutional.

“That it was unanimous was unexpected but having listened to the arguments made before the Supreme Court, the result was not unexpected,” Marcos said in a text message.

Drilon said the abolition of PDAF would also do away with the system of political patronage that has stunted socio-economic development and allowed a few to maintain political dominance in certain areas.

“I believe the SC decision reinforces the government’s efforts to reform the country’s political system and likewise affirms the Senate’s position that PDAF must be abolished,” he said.

With the decision, Drilon said, they were looking at the passage of a supplemental budget for 2013 to provide funds for relief and rehabilitation efforts to areas affected by the powerful earthquake in October and several destructive typhoons.

“We will urge the President to certify the supplemental budget as urgent, as the funds can be promptly use by the necessary agencies for the relief and rehabilitation of areas struck by these recent disasters, particularly the typhoons Yolanda, Santi, Labuyo, the siege of Zamboanga City and the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the Visayas,” said Drilon.

He said the funds could come from the unspent PDAF of senators and congressmen for 2013 amounting to P14.5 billion, which can be considered savings because of the Court ruling.

Under the Constitution, Drilon said, a supplemental budget needs certification from the National Treasurer as to availability of funds, but said this was not a problem because of the unreleased PDAF.

If the remaining budget is unused before the year ends, however, it goes back to the National Treasury and can no longer be realigned, he said.

He also noted that PDAF could no longer be realigned because the Court deleted it from the 2013 budget.

Enrile, facing plunder charges, said he never had custody of the funds allocated under his pork barrel allocations.

Enrile said he merely requested that his allocations be used for certain municipalities.

“The projects were not my projects so I did not have custody of the funds,” he said.

He said because pork barrel has been in place for such a long time, he did not know what would happen next.

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano said the decision settles once and for all the illegality of the pork barrel system, saying it was an end to lawmakers having the discretion to use lump sums in the national budget.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago used the Court decision to again attack her political nemesis, Enrile.

“At the very least, he should offer to commit hara-kiri because this dishonor belongs to him,” she said, recalling his disbursement of some P2 million in “Christmas bonuses” to all senators except his enemies.

In the House, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said Congress would no longer appeal the Court decision.

Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, member of the House independent minority bloc, welcomed the decision, calling it “a great day for Philippine democracy and good governance.”

Atienza, who has been vocal against pork barrel, maintained that the system of lawmakers appropriating money for themselves was “illegal and unconscionable.”

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr. said the decision was “expected,” saying the “public pressure in the form of protest” had affected the mindset of the justices.

Barzaga also lamented that the justices saw “only the bad side of [PDAF] but not the good effects.”

He said it was “a very sad day” for scholars who depended on PDAF for their tuition.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares said the Court decision was a big blow against President Aquino and his continuous defense of the pork barrel system.

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said he was saddened by the decision.

“We do not have PDAF anymore for this year and the next. As for Malampaya who will reimburse the funds that were declared unconstitutional?” said Albano, a member of the House opposition bloc.

He said in the same manner, the President’s Disbursement Acceleration Program should be ruled unconstitutional, too.

Unless presidential pork is abolished, Colmenares added, the battle is not over. With Macon R. Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz


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