House of Representatives swept up in pork barrel storm

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The House of Representatives was swept up in the storm whipped up by pork barrel scam in 2013.

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Halfway through the year, the House was rocked by charges that some of its members channeled part of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to questionable non-government organizations controlled by Janet Lim-Napoles.

The scam, deemed the biggest and most systemic corruption scheme uncovered in the country’s history, triggered outrage and calls for the abolition of the pork barrel system. It also prompted various personalities to challenge the legality of PDAF at the Supreme Court.

In September, the Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the disbursement of the fund. Two months later, it unanimously declared PDAF unconstitutional.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. maintains that the House weathered the scandal unscathed. But a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey published in November indicates otherwise.

The survey found that the chamber’s net satisfaction rating dropped from “good” to “moderate”, falling 10 points from +37 in the second quarter of the year.

The lawmakers’ morale also a hit. Neophyte congressmen were dragged into a controversy that they had not hand in, while senior representatives worried where to get funding for medical assistance and scholarships of their constituents.

Before the Supreme Court (SC) ruling, House members were each entitled to a P70 million pork barrel. The allocation has been deleted from the national budget.

Several weeks after the High Court killed the pork barrel system, the House leadership pledged to go through the Court’s Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) with a fine tooted comb.

House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales 2nd was quick to clarify that the move is not an act of revenge against the Court. But observers see otherwise.

The disqualification of Marinduque Rep. Regina Reyes further fanned the differences between the House and judiciary.

In October, the SC ruled with finality that Reyes should be ousted from the House because she is an American citizen.

The House defied the Court, saying the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) is the only body that can rule on electoral disputes filed after the proclamation of the winning candidate.

Fake Saro scheme
The pork barrel scam is not the only controversy that the House faced this year.

Some of its members were also linked to the release of fake special allotment release orders (SARO).

Super Typhoon Yolanda also challenged the chamber, as it struggled to pass a supplemental budget for the rehabilitation of the devastated areas.

Early in December, Congress passed the P14.6-billion lump-sum supplemental budget drawn from the PDAF allocation that the SC had struck down as unconstitutional.

During budget deliberations, the minority bloc raised wanted concrete assurances that the budget will not be another form of pork barrel.

Lawmakers have been scanning for loopholes and weaknesses in the existing risk reduction and disaster management law following the administration’s poor handling of relief and recovery operations, particularly in Tacloban City.

FOI
As in the previous years, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill failed to advance at the House.

Before the 15th Congress ended in February, the bill only went as far as sponsorship period, the first step in plenary discussions of the proposed legislation.

But as the 16th Congress opened in July, deliberations on the bill did not gather pace.

The House Committee on Public Information, currently chaired by Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte, met only twice. It has yet to consolidate the 19 different versions of the bill and discuss it in February, when the committee meets again.

Cha-cha, EPIRA, economic bills
While the new Congress has just started to reel, the House leadership is keen on taking up more controversial measures starting 2014, including several economic bills.

Before the House went on a Christmas break, Belmonte said they were pushing for charter change despite the indifference of President Benigno Aquino 3rd on such move.

Belmonte said the 1987 Constitution’s economic provisions need to be amended to relax the 60-40 ownership rule.

He said they intend to insert the “unless provided by law” phrase to allow lawmakers pass an enabling law defining ownership. This is to entice foreign investors to pursue businesses in the country.

Belmonte hopes the measure will reach the plenary by the first quarter of next year.

The Electricity Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) loomed big in the House following the record power rate hike granted Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) this month.

Majority and minority congressmen believe it is time to amend, if not scrap, the laws because it has not stopped the unabated increase in electricity prices.

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