The recent Supreme Court (SC) decision striking down the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of legislators has turned the Development Acceleration Program (DAP) lawsuit—set for oral arguments before the High Court today—into the new and bigger battleground for anti-pork activists and Malacañang.
There’s a lot at stake for both sides. That’s because the lawmakers’ P25-billion PDAF is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the DAP and other discretionary (or pork barrel) funds of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, which some estimates place at up to P1 trillion.
While the SC’s PDAF decision may have turned Congress’ pork barrel system on its head, its unintended consequence is that it has given the executive department—and in particular, Aquino—a virtual monopoly on where, when and how public funds should be spent.
Some view this near absolute control by Aquino over the implementation of the P2-trillion plus national budget as akin to a fiscal dictatorship, which certain sectors perceive is already being exploited by the current administration to pursue its own political agenda for the 2016 national elections.
Others say the SC’s decision merely formalized what lawmakers already know: That with or without their pork barrel, the Palace wields the final discretion to approve and release the funds for their pet projects “in aid of re-election.” Only now, lawmakers have lost all vestiges of control or influence over their piece of the budget pie.
This historically wide latitude enjoyed by Malacañang in using, allocating and distributing taxpayer money is what worries many ordinary Filipinos. And there is perhaps no better example of how such power is wielded by the Palace than the controversial DAP.
Impoundment, realignment, simply ‘pork’
The DAP is a discretionary fund created through “impoundment”—or what the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) calls in legal gobbledygook as “the withdrawal of all unobligated allotments of all agencies with low level of obligations.”
“Impoundment” refers to the practice of sitting presidents to suspend expenditures or to refuse spending the funds allocated by Congress for certain projects or activities under the budget law.
In the case of DAP, the impounded funds were deemed “savings” by Aquino and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and realigned to “fund priority programs and projects NOT considered in the 2012 budget . . .”
So the DAP is obviously another budget within a budget—a new appropriation measure enacted solely by Malacañang. This is an encroachment on Congress’ power of the purse in that it allows the executive branch to spend public funds even without congressional authorization.
Moreover, since Aquino ultimately determines where the funds will go, the DAP is, in reality, another kind of “presidential pork barrel”—which the SC defined in the PDAF case as “as a kind of lump-sum, discretionary fund which allows the President to determine the manner of its utilization.”
Problem is, Aquino’s discretionary powers over the budget —specifically on impoundment, savings and realignment —have led to the abuse and misuse of taxpayer money.
For instance, some P500-million from DAP were distributed as additional pork barrel funds for several senators after the Senate voted to convict former Chief Justice Renato Corona, contrary to the constitutional edict that savings can only spent to augment line items in the budget and only for agencies within the executive branch.
Similarly, another P5.115-million from DAP was used by the Commission on Audit (COA)—a constitutional body outside of the executive branch—to buy brand new service vehicles for Chair Grace Pulido-Tan and Commissioner Heidi Mendoza.
The question now in the minds of many of our media and law colleagues is: Will the SC permit Aquino’s unlimited discretion over DAP funds—and other types of presidential pork barrel—especially after its pronouncements in the PDAF case?
Not a few believe the SC will be hard put to uphold the constitutionality of DAP and other types of presidential pork barrel. They argue that the DAP, much like the SC’s description of the PDAF, is also a “lump-sum amount to be tapped as a source of funding for multiple purposes.”
And since the Palace “as the implementing authority would still have to determine . . . both the actual amount to be expended and the actual purpose of the appropriation . . . [Malacañang] would, in effect, be exercising legislative prerogatives in violation of the principle of non-delegability,” as the SC ruled in the PDAF case.
Applying the SC’s PDAF ruling, others also argue that the DAP and other presidential discretionary funds gives Aquino “carte blanche authority” to use “impounded” funds or savings “for any other purpose he may direct and in effect, allows him to unilaterally appropriate public funds beyond the purview of the [budget]law.”
While the SC may have put an end to a corrupt practice institutionalized by Congress for the past several decades, will it also heed the people’s clamor to rein in the fiscal powers of Aquino and exorcise all “pork” from our dysfunctional political system?