SC rules ‘pork barrel’ unconstitutional

Posted on November 20, 2013

THE SUPREME Court (SC) has ruled the so-called "pork barrel" system is unconstitutional, ending the practice of lawmakers to nominate pet projects through lump sum allocations in the annual budget.

Voting unanimously with one justice abstaining, the high court -- in full session -- also declared as unconstitutional the use of Malampaya funds outside of energy spending, and the Presidential Social Funds (PSF) financing priority infrastructure development projects.

"This decision is immediately executory but prospective in effect," the decision’s dispositive portion said.

The high court, speaking through the decision written by Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, ruled the pork barrel system violated the separation of powers by allowing lawmakers to participate in "vital areas of budget executions."

The pork barrel system violated the principle of non-delegation of legislative powers since it conferred the power of appropriation to individual lawmakers as they can fund specific projects at their discretion.

The SC said the congressional pork barrel created a system of budgeting where items are not specified, thus denying the President the power to veto appropriations.

"[The pork barrel] dilutes the effectiveness of congressional oversight by giving legislators a stake in the affairs of budget execution, an aspect of governance which they may be called to monitor and scrutinize, (thus) impair(ing) public accountability," the high court said.

The system allowed lawmakers, who are national officers, to intervene in local affairs, thus subverting the latter’s autonomy.

With the ruling, the stay order earlier ordered by the high court has become permanent.

Thus, the SC ordered to return to the Treasury the unreleased 2013 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) as well as the PSF used for infrastructure development and the Malampaya funds used outside of energy spending.

The SC decision covered the entire provision of the PDAF under the 2013 General Appropriations Act as well as similar allocations in previous laws pertaining to the pork barrel system.

The high court included the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), the PDAF’s forerunner, and other congressional insertions, which authorized lawmakers to participate in various post-enactment of the budget execution.

It includes project identification, modification and revision as well as fund release and realignment, processes which are unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.

Budget Secretary Florencio B. Abad withheld comment saying he has yet to read a copy of the decision.

"I haven’t read the decision yet," Mr. Abad told reporters in a chance interview at the SC.

For his part, Senate President Franklin M. Drilon was quoted as saying in a statement that they will follow the Supreme Court’s decision.

Also, Mr. Drilon said he is considering the passage of a supplemental budget using the unspent PDAF for relief and rehabilitation to areas affected by disasters.

"We urge the President to certify the supplemental budget as urgent, as the funds can be promptly used by the necessary agencies for the relief and rehabilitation of areas struck by these recent disasters, particularly the typhoons Yolanda, Santi, Labuyo, the siege of Zamboanga City and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in the Visayas." Mr. Drilon was quoted as saying in a statement.

House Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. said the House of Representatives will also abide with the SC decision.

"The House [of Representatives] will accept this decision. The House can live with this decision, and we will not appeal it, we accept it," Mr. Belmonte told reporters.

The SC has also ordered the investigation and prosecution of government officials and private individuals for possible criminal offenses in relation to alleged misuse of pork barrel funds.

Separate concurring opinions were submitted by Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P.A. Sereno, Associate Justices Antonio T. Carpio and Mario Victor F. Leonen.

The decision was based on the consolidated petitions of senatorial candidates Greco Antonious B. Belgica, along with four others, and Samson S. Alcantara as well as former Boac, Marinduque mayor Pedrito M. Nepomuceno.

The decision also veers away from the high court’s previous rulings which upheld the constitutionality of pork barrel funds.

The SC, however, denied the petitioners’ plea to make public detailed reports related to the questioned funds.

The high court also denied the petitioners’ request to order the inclusion of funds like the Malampaya royalties during congressional deliberations. The SC said it is up to Congress to decide on the issue.

The scandal over lawmakers’ misuse of pork barrel funds has become the biggest crisis of President Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s three-year rule, tainting his image as a corruption fighter and undermining his ability to push economic reforms.

"This will surely hurt the presidency," said Ramon C. Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms. "It means it will be very difficult for the Executive and Legislative branches to create discretionary funds."

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben P. Evardone, who is from one of the provinces hardest hit by typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan), said the court decision would make it difficult to raise funds for reconstruction.

"While all sectors of society in the national and international community are in a frenzied mood to look for resources to support the typhoon victims, the Supreme Court appears to be insensitive to our situation," he told reporters.

Mr. Aquino, who is supervising relief efforts in storm-ravaged Tacloban City, was flying back to Manila to talk to aides, his spokesman said.

About P25 billion was allocated in the proposed 2014 budget before Mr. Aquino was forced to scrap the projects. -- Mikhail Franz E. Flores, Imee Charlee C. Delavin and Reuters