POSTSCRIPT / August 31, 2004 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Deny pork to lawmakers, give IRA to local gov'ts

STATESIDE TERM: The origin of the political term “pork barrel” will explain partly why it has such despicable implications.

Copied from the Americans, the term refers to expenditure bills benefiting local constituencies although using funds intended to be used nationwide. (We beg the indulgence of readers already familiar with this background.)

The term entered the congressional lexicon after the US Civil War. It harked back to the days of slavery when salted pork was often distributed from wooden barrels to the slaves in the plantations.

Adapted to US legislation, pork barrel measures used federal funds to dole out largesse to local constituents — and also to improve the political stock of their benefactors in Congress who had worked out the pork release.

Pork barrel projects have economic or service benefits that are limited to one area or sector but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers nationwide. Lawmakers dip into the national barrel to get pork usually in pursuit of narrow political and personal ends.

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PINOY-STYLE PORK: But, as usual, the Filipino politician has improved on the US model. In the Philippine setting, pork barrel has gained added notoriety for at least three reasons:

  1. Under the Constitution, the basic function of senators and congressmen is to enact laws. Executing the law, which includes the putting up of projects under the budget law, is supposedly the job of the Executive department.
  2. As it has turned out, while local projects of lawmakers may be pleasing to the local voters (especially those with simple needs), they are sometimes non-priority, irrelevant or even contrary to national development goals.
  3. There is an understanding that a lawmaker not only decides what projects will be pursued in his area under his pork barrel, but also choose the contractors. This has resulted in so much graft and the inferior quality of most projects.

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LAME ARGUMENTS: Senators and congressmen clinging desperately to their pork have so far offered lame excuses for their continued enjoyment of such largesse.

We have heard two key arguments: that they need money to pursue projects in their areas, and that they have committed already part of their expected pork. All they have to do to be enlightened is read the Constitution — probably a first-time experience for some of them.

To their first point, the response is that as lawmakers, their job is not to put up projects but to pass laws. Somebody or something should drum this into their heads. If their constituents need projects, the Executive department, national and local, can and should attend to that.

To their second point, we ask if part of their pork allocation was committed already to their constituents — or to their favorite contractors.

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BORROW FROM LGUs: But as we argue for stopping the lawmakers from usurping Executive functions, we see also that Malacanang wants to borrow part of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) of local governments.

As countryside development rests on the shoulders of the Executive branch, then local governments — the backbone of the Executive — should have all the money they can lay their hands on subject to the usual priority programming and budgeting rules.

It was unfortunate that the idea of suspending the release of the IRA of local governments was broached by a congressman — who belongs to another branch involved in the tug-of-war for limited resources.

Rep. Joey Salceda of Albay proposed that local governments lend to the national government a portion of their IRA estimated at P20 billion and collect repayment after 18 months with interest. Somebody else should have said this.

While Congress’ usurpation of executive functions (enforcing or carrying out the law) has no constitutional basis, the claim for automatic release of the IRA to local government is grounded on the charter.

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CHARTER GUARANTEE: No wonder the League of Provinces of the Philippines opposes the idea, saying that it is unconstitutional and unlawful, that it would disrupt the delivery of basic services, and that it does not resolve the problem it seeks to address.

There is a constitutional guarantee that local governments shall enjoy local autonomy and shall have a just share in national taxes to be released to them automatically. Article X (Local Government) of the Constitution says in part:

“Sec. 2. The territorial and political subdivisions shall enjoy local autonomy.

x x x

“Sec. 6. Local government units shall have a just share, as determined by law, in the national taxes which shall be automatically released to them.”

Then President Fidel V. Ramos suspended the release of a portion of the IRA in the face of a budget deficit. He issued Administrative Order No. 372 withholding 10 percent of the IRA “pending the assessment and evaluation by the Development Budget Coordinating Committee of the emerging fiscal situation.”

But in the case of Pimentel vs. Aguirre, Section 4 of Ramos’s order withholding part of the IRA was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The court ruled that under existing laws, local governments, in addition to having administrative autonomy, enjoy fiscal autonomy.

A basic feature of this local autonomy is the automatic release of the IRA (Section 6 cited).

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CRIPPLING CUT: This principle was reiterated in the recent case of Batangas vs. Romulo et al. . The court held that the adoption of the special provisions in the General Appropriation Acts and the resolutions of the Oversight Committee on Devolution which set aside part of the IRA for the priority projects of the national government is a flagrant violation of the constitutional and statutory mandate that the “just share” of the LGUs “shall be automatically released to them.”

The League of Provinces points out that withholding local government shares violates the Local Government Code which provides:

“SEC. 286. Automatic release of Shares. — (a) The shares of each local government shall be released, without need of any further action, directly to the provincial, city, municipality or barangay treasurer, as the case may be, on a quarter basis within five (5) days after each quarter, and which shall not be subject to any lien, holdback that may be imposed by the National Government for whatever purpose. x x x”

Taking away P20 billion from local governments in one fell swoop will cripple them and stunt countryside development.

Most of the 5th and 4th class local governments rely heavily on the IRA to perform their assigned functions. The IRA that they have expected all along has already been inputted into their budget.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 31, 2004)

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