The ongoing controversy regarding the misuse and abuse of government funds— whether through Malacañang’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) or legislators’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)—is the result of the systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics among the three governmental bodies responsible for overseeing the use of public money: the Congress, the Palace and the Commission on Audit (COA).
The allocation and use of public money was supposed to be a straightforward process: The Palace submits a budget bill containing a detailed estimate of the costs of government’s spending program to Congress, and in particular, the House of Representatives, where the estimates are supposed to be scrutinized in committee, and then approved, reduced or rejected. When approved by both the House and the Senate, the budget bill becomes a law called the General Appropriations Act or GAA, which is thereafter implemented by the Palace.
Ever since Congress was restored after the 1986 ‘people power’ revolution, however, it has steadily relinquished its control over government expenditures to the executive branch that Congress has practically abdicated its duty as the “power of the purse.”
The power of the purse is the most important power of Congress because it determines where and how much should be spent by the government. More importantly, it checks the power of the President by making sure that the executive does not spend a single centavo of public money without congressional authorization.
Unfortunately, the approval of the Palace’s budget bill is routinely railroaded by their congressional allies—proof undeniable that the appropriations process has become an empty ritual. There is no messy cross-examination of secretaries or agency officials responsible for the budgetary estimates and very little opportunity for lawmakers to question an expenditure.
This is a clear betrayal of the constitutional purpose of Congress.
Would Filipinos be surprised to learn that Congress has not once in the past several decades, reduced the president’s or their own pork barrel? Would they be shocked to know that the budget of the vast majority of departments and agencies is never scrutinized at all by our lawmakers?
It seems all our legislators care about in the budget bill is their PDAF and their ‘insertions’—the ‘pork’ inserted by lawmakers in the budget law for their pet projects—which are a rich source of kickbacks.
And thanks in part to the rise of a political culture that centralizes the power to disburse public funds in the Palace, we have a Congress that has been reduced to an expensive rubber stamp. So when the king wants a new castle, he gets it.
Perhaps this is why the Palace has been so brazen in tinkering with the GAA with nary a whimper from Congress.
The misuse and abuse of Malacañang’s discretionary powers over the budget is nothing new.
Time and again, sitting presidents have routinely refused to spend, for whatever reason, public funds allocated by Congress—a practice known as “impoundment” (or “unreleased appropriations” as Budget Secretary Florencio Abad now calls it) – in order to generate so-called “savings” which can then be “realigned” or diverted by the Palace to off-budget (and oftentimes, questionable) programs, activities or projects.
In fact, this abuse of power over public money recently reared its ugly head when the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigation in 2008 revealed that fertilizer funds were apparently diverted to the 2004 candidacy of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The resulting public outrage led then opposition lawmakers Noynoy Aquino, Mar Roxas, Risa Hontiveros and TG Guingona to file several bills aimed at controlling Arroyo’s impounding authority.
Ironically, now that he’s in Malacañang, President Aquino is exploiting the very same impounding scheme that he had once denounced Arroyo for.
By creating the DAP spending program from impounded ‘savings,’ for instance, the Aquino administration was able to fund and distribute additional ‘pork’ to select senators and congressmen after the Corona impeachment trial as an ‘incentive’ (or bribe?) for a job well done.
Of course, all these abuses would not have been possible had the COA—as an “independent” constitutional body— done its job of tracking and monitoring how the Palace uses taxpayer pesos. But more often than not, the highly politicized COA turns a blind eye to the possible wrongdoings of the powers-that-be.
In the case of DAP, the state auditing agency appeared clueless about its existence. And were it not for the letter-request of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, COA Chairman Grace Pulido Tan would probably not have even probed this highly questionable program.
Lately, the Palace has been tripping over itself trying to justify the DAP, arguing that the fund was properly used for high-impact projects to stimulate the economy.
So what’s taking so long for Abad to publicly release the complete list of these DAP projects?
We’re waiting, Mr. Secretary.