Don’t burn the House down because you can’t capture the rats.
Veteran lawmakers made the appeal amid the raging public outrage on the P10 billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam that benefited the fake nongovernment organizations owned by Janet Lim-Napoles.
The said expose has already led to the filing of plunder and graft-related charges to 38 individuals, including three Senators, before the Office of the Ombudsman, the realignment of the P25 billion PDAF provided under the P2.268 trillion proposed budget for 2014 to the budget for different budget agencies and somehow depriving the lawmakers of their discretion on who gets to benefit from the PDAF.
But despite such developments, the House continues to get a beating by being branded as House of Greed or House of Pigs, while its members were tagged as crocodiles tongcongressman, tong being a slang Filipino term for a kickback from a government projects. All of these things have started to take its toll on lawmakers.
“In reference to the Napoles issue, there are only at least five out of the 294 incumbent House members who were mentioned. [Would you call that] House of Thieves?,” Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. of Quezon City, the Vice Chairman of the ruling Liberal Party (LP) , said in a text message.
“Those criticisms would be the fallacy of false generalization. The critics are closing their eyes to the good side of PDAF: our scholars who were able to obtain a college degree, the sick who were able to prolong their lives and poor sector of our society whom we helped because of our PDAF, including the infrastructure projects,” Rep. Elpidio Barzaga of Dasmariñas, Chairman of the House Committee on Games and Amusements, told The Manila Times in a separate talk.
Barzaga, a lawyer like Belmonte, was referring to the time wherein each House member gets a yearly P70 million PDAF allocation which they can spend for their constituents needs. Further, it is the lawmakers’ discretion on who gets to benefit from their PDAF and which infrastructure projects will be funded by their PDAF.
Of the P70 million, P40 million are earmarked for infrastructure initiatives, while the remaining P30 million goes to scholarships and medical assistance.
“Most of our critics don’t belong to the marginalized sector of our society. Critics of the PDAF didn’t get to experience trying times wherein they cannot send their children to college, bring their sick relative to the hospital because of poverty. Because of their demands regarding the PDAF abolition, they would be depriving millions of Filipinos of the help which we are extending through our PDAF,” Barzaga, a member of the National Union Party allied with the administration, said.
“Instead of focusing on PDAF abolition, critics should propose safeguards to prevent the repetition of the pork barrel scam and be vigilant to see to it that legislators who misappropriated public funds should be held liable,” Barzaga added.
Rep. Teddy Baguilat of Ifugao, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, also rued the attacks against Congress and described them as grossly unfair.
“While I fully support prosecution of erring and corrupt members of Congress, majority of us are decent, progressive and dedicated. We shouldn’t be lumped together with those who did wrong,” Baguilat stressed in a separate talk.
“The right of citizens to criticize should also be accompanied by fair and accurate accounting of the House’s performance. Before it was abolished, the bulk of my PDAF in the 15th Congress was used for priority projects in needy communities,” Baguilat, a member of the ruling LP, added.
His fellow LP members and Reps. Mel Senen Sarmiento of Western Samar and Benjie Agarao of Laguna could not agree more.
“Just like a family, you don’t brand the whole family as shop lifters just because one family member committed the act,” Sarmiento, the LP Secretary General, argued.
“Those who stole the public funds should pay, but let us not forget that not all lawmakers are thieves,” Agarao added.
Rep. Walden Bello of Akbayan party-list, for his part, lamented that the PDAF controversy has already created a smokescreen so huge that the public seemingly forgotten that the 15th Congress passed landmark legislations which have been pending for more than a decade namely the Sin Tax Reform law, Reproductive Health (RH) law, Kasambahay law and the Marcos Compensation law.
The Sin Tax law raises taxes on tobacco and alcohol products which prices have been virtually remained the same since 1996, while the RH bill provides safe and effective contraceptives to the poorest of the poor.
On the other hand, the Kasambahay measure raised the minimum salary of household service workers to P2,500 and mandated the employers to pay for the social security of their household helpers.
Last but not the least, the Marcos compensation law grants remuneration to the victims of human rights violations during the regime of the late dictator President Ferdinand Marcos—the only Philippine law which holds Marcos and his family accountable for what transpired during the Martial law.
“Some deserve the epithet of pigs, but some don’t. Now that the pork is eliminated, Congress can better focus on debating and passing good legislation. Those who will run for Congress just to make money will no longer be motivated to run, leaving space for people who really want to provide effective public service. That is my hope,” Bello, Chairman of the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, said.
But for Deputy Speaker Giorgidi Aggabao of Isabela, Congress has simply reaped the fruits of what it sowed in the first place.
“I can’t blame them [calling us names]. Many legislators treated the system as a game they mastered playing on. I said then, and am repeating it ad nauseam, we should throw the entire kitchen—not just the sink—to those who stole government money. Congress deserves being excoriated by the public,” Aggabao, a lawyer and a member of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, said in closing. LLANESCA T. PANTI