New name but still pork

Panic was obvious in the tone of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad when he said that President Benigno Aquino III approved the Disbursement Acceleration Program which was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013. His statement came in the heels of the probe started by the Office of the Ombudsman to determine his culpability for the crime of plunder.

What promises to be a more interesting spectacle is how Secretary Abad, the President and even the members of Congress will react to the new petition filed by the Philippine Constitution Association in the Supreme Court last week. The petition revealed that DAP, or pork, still exists in the 2015 General Appropriations Act, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision declaring lump sum appropriations as invalid, and in horrific amounts at that. A staggering sum of more than P424 billion, the Philippine Constitution Association, is cleverly embedded in the budget allocations of nine strategic departments and two agencies under the Executive Department.

 As a backgrounder, Philconsa cited the 2013 case of Belgica vs. Ochoa Jr. in which the Supreme Court declared that an appropriation that merely provides for a singular lump sum amount to be tapped as a source of funding for multiple purposes is constitutionally infirm. The Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress which must allocate and pass into law on a yearly basis, “specific appropriation of money” for “a specific public purpose.” When lump sums are given, the power to determine the specific amount of appropriation and the specific purpose is delegated to the executive branch which is then a violation of the Constitution because only the legislature has the lawful power to grant specific allocations for specific public purposes.

In the 2015 General Appropriations Act, more than P424 billion is given as lump sums to nine departments and two agencies, Philconsa said. Section 65 of the 2015 Appropriations Act says that these lump sums shall be released “upon submission by the agency concerned to the DBM of Special Budgets detailing the actual Programs and Projects and the actual amount to be expended, the rationale and the purposes approved by the president.” This suggests simply that the power of the purse is handed over by Congress to the Executive Branch, specifically the Office of the President, which now has the power under the 2015 GAA to approve special budgets coming from the lump sum allocations.

Philconsa also revealed that in Sec. 70 of the 2015 GAA, Congress—in an attempt to override the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the word “savings” as defined in Section 25 (5) Art VI of the Constitution —gave a new meaning to “savings.” In Sec. 70 of the GAA, it redefined savings as portions or balances of any released appropriations which have not been obligated as a result of the following situations.

First, the discontinuance or abandonment of a project. This is unconstitutional, Philconsa said, because it gives the agency head the power to discontinue a project at any time and then treat the unused appropriation as savings without having to wait for the end of the one-year validity of the appropriation or two years, with respect to capital outlays. Second, the non-commencement of a program or project for which an appropriation is released is likewise deemed savings. Philconsa said, this, again, is unconstitutional because it gives the agency head the power to not commence a project and then consider the appropriation as savings when in fact such appropriation is valid for one year or two years, for capital outlays. Third, decreased cost during the implementation of the project is likewise savings under the 2015 GAA. This is unconstitutional, Philconsa said, because savings is determined after—not during—the implementation of a project. Fourth, the difference between the approved budget and the contract award price is likewise savings. This is flawed and unconstitutional, Philconsa said, because savings is not realized until after the project is completed. Finally, the GAA states that savings may also refer to unused compensation relating to unfilled positions, un-utilized retirement benefits, etc. Philconsa denounced this, saying that any such balances should revert to the National Treasury as required by law. Philconsa added that it would, in effect, be rewarding poor budget planners or cunning executives who “create” savings to benefit themselves. If the Executive, for instance, committed to Congress to hire 10,000 new teachers and then hires only 5,000 (to the detriment of the people) huge savings is created and the executive benefits from the savings.

How can savings benefit the Executive Branch prompting Congress, which is packed by people close to the Office of the President, to redefine savings in the 2015 GAA? Art. 73 of the GAA allows realignment of allotment classes and re-prioritization of items from savings. This, Philconsa said, is prohibited under Art VI of the Constitution and violates a doctrinal pronouncement by the Supreme Court.

The big question that lingers is, what is the underlying reason behind the P424 billion worth of new pork barrel inconspicuously and cleverly hidden in the 2015 budget? To what will the so-called savings be applied? My guess is as good as everyone else’s.




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