POSTSCRIPT / June 4, 1998 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Erap may just realign, or rename pork barrel

AS it is not all black and white in the world of politics, it would be naïve to expect President-elect Joseph “Erap” Estrada to insist, much less succeed, in scrapping altogether the pork barrel from the national budget.

What this observer expects is a compromise, all in the spirit of moving the country forward with the cooperation of Congress.

Estrada is hot on the subject as he is still fired up by his spectacular “landscape” (Eraptalk for landslide) victory. Expect him to cool a bit later. In the coming budgets, I expect them to call pork barrel by some other name.

In the current budget, which is beyond Estrada’s veto, the new President can realign the balance of pork barrel for the second semester. Under the budget law, the President can shuffle around money within his executive departments.

If Estrada, for instance, wants to realign pork barrel for bridges in the remainder of the 1998 Ramos budget to the building of classrooms, he can do it. After all, the money for public works and education are for agencies under the Office of the President.

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THE problem with pork barrel is not really the mere allocation of money for pet projects of congressmen and senators. That is normal. What is anomalous is the legislators themselves choosing contractors, overseeing the construction and collecting fat commissions.

The line between the co-equal Executive and the Legislative branches of government is clear enough. Generally, the legislature enacts laws and the Chief Executive enforces them.

After the budget is passed and signed into law, the job of Congress is theoretically done – and the President takes care of implementing it.

It is not the job of congressmen and senators, but of the President, to build the roads, bridges, schoolhouses and other projects funded under the budget. But what happens is that lawmakers still poke their sticky fingers into the implementation, even going to the extent of assigning favored contractors for the juicy projects.

Although that is wrong, both Malacañang and Congress have gotten used to the stinking pork barrel system. In fact, they themselves invented as they searched for ways of scratching each other’s back and making money, big money, in the process.

Pork barrel has been estimated at P50 billion. Some 40 percent of that – this figures came from the budget secretary himself – is lost to graft, and that’s a whopping P20 billion.

The P50-billion figure is just an estimate because there is more pork neatly tucked away in the budgets of the various offices from which lawmakers finance profitable projects in cahoots with agency heads.

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PORK is stashed away in several places in the budget:

  1. The gargantuan five-year Public Works Act. This law lists projects, including some sponsored by lawmakers out to impress their constituents and maybe raise some millions.
  2. The Countryside Development Fund – This gives the 200-plus congressman P12 million each and the 24 senators P18 million each for supposedly “development” projects of their choice. Senators have no districts to serve directly, but they had to be included in the deal to assure passage of the CDF.
  3. The Congressional Initiative Allocations – These are items inserted by lawmakers into the programs of agencies following up their budgets in Congress. The allocations are roughly P22 million per congressman and P22 million per senator.
  4. The budgets of various agencies — For instance, when they were scrutinizing the budget of the National Irrigation Agency, some lawmakers managed to include some items in the NIA budget. There arose the anomaly of some congressmen from Metro Manila with funds for irrigation in the asphalt jungle!

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THIS is the pork that Estrada has vowed to slice away. It is not clear, however, if he means deleting the controversial funds from the coming budgets or just cleaning the system of occasions for graft.

His war against pork has gained popular support, not only from his millions of fans but also from his detractors who include Catholic bishops. Enjoying a clear mandate, Estrada can make this a defining crusade of his administration.

He has said repeatedly that he is not backing from the anti-pork war, but I sense that he would end up compromising: possibly realigning the balance in this year’s pork barrel and giving it a less repugnant name and rationale in coming budgets.

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MY unsolicited advice to compatriots abroad, especially in the United States, whose level of political awareness has been heightened and who now have more stringent requirements of their president: Give Estrada a chance.

As I said earlier, I did not vote for Estrada (I left the blank for President blank). I have not worked with him or for people associated with him. I’ve never been part of his campaign or political apparatus. I have not received any favor from him. I just look at him, like the other stars in the political firmament, from a respectable journalistic distance.

From my vantage, I see that the man – despite his admitted limitations and his past associations – deserves a break.

Without comparable machinery and with stink bombs being thrown at him from everywhere, he won the votes of some 10 million of our countrymen, leading his nearest rival (Speaker Jose de Venecia) by some six million votes. And the election, by most accounts, was fair enough and relatively clean.

If he betrays the public trust, we’ll go after him. Meantime, however, let’s give Estrada a chance.

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