Change in the Philippine national budget?

President Rodrigo Duterte is set to submit his first proposed national budget to Congress in mid-August. Will it be truly ‘pork-free’?

Marjohara Tucay

8:24:5am July 27, 2016

8:24:10am July 27, 2016

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno is difficult to place.  

On the one hand, Diokno has vowed to drop the multi-billion-peso “Bottom-up Budgeting” (BUB) scheme of the Aquino administration, calling it a “political tool” and rightly so. On the other hand, the Department of Budget and Management has announced it will allow legislators to propose up to P80 million worth of projects for their districts during the budget preparation phase. 

Such bold defense for discretionary funding, from the budget secretary himself, is telling: the pork barrel system may again rear its ugly head under the freshly-minted Duterte administration.

Diokno is correct in saying that the BUB is a political tool. The Aquino administration trumpeted the BUB using sweet-sounding NGO lingo – calling it a “participatory” or “grassroots approach to budgeting.”

Yet a closer look at the regional allocation for BUB in the past years clearly shows the scheme was intrinsically designed to peddle Malacañang’s influence at the most basic level of governance. Numerous towns and cities were given funding for projects – many of which were inaugurated by no other than defeated Liberal Party presidential candidate Mar Roxas mere months before the elections. 

To reject the BUB is a step in the right direction. However, to claim that the 2017 national budget is “pork-free” is another matter. 

Secretary Diokno is not new to the Department of Budget and Management – he had first served as budget chief during the Estrada years. And this is precisely the reason why he should know that giving legislators a free hand in proposing projects is also in itself a political tool. 

Being a veteran in this field of work, Diokno knows that technically, allowing legislators to name projects prior to the enactment of the national budget complies with the Supreme Court decision that declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional. He also, knows, however, that introducing such mechanism also means that the pork barrel – and the system of discretionary funding that the Filipino people have resoundingly rejected years ago – will continue to thrive, albeit under the thin veneer of legality. 

In an article published by Rappler at the height of the pork barrel fiasco in 2013, Diokno himself explained how scrapping PDAF is “just smoke and mirrors.” In the said article, he described the mechanism by which senators and congressmen can still access pork in the post-PDAF era. These days, Diokno sings a different tune: “You have to recognize that politicians have a responsibility in their respective districts to their constituencies,” he was quoted as saying.

A spade is a spade is a spade, and the executive branch should not move to legally circumvent the Supreme Court ruling on PDAF by giving legislators leeway to propose projects. After all, PDAF was legal until it wasn’t, yet that did not necessarily mean that it was a creature of good back then.

Legislators are tasked, primarily, to make laws and not build infrastructure projects. While lawmakers should strictly scrutinize the budget bill once it is being deliberated in Congress, decency and recent history tell us what happens when congressmen go overboard in haggling over funds for their parochial concerns.

Allowing pork barrel to thrive goes against President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign to rid the government of corruption, since it creates opportunities for scheming officials to again dip their hands in the honeypot and choose projects that will inevitably earn them kickbacks.

The President and his budget chief should break away from the long shadow cast by patronage politics. Instead of continuing a system of discretionary spending that is meant to satisfy the cravings of legislators “addicted” to pork, Duterte must lead the nation into an era wherein the budget is prepared with the welfare of the people in mind, and without policy loopholes that would open the whole process to corruption. 

President Duterte will be meeting his Cabinet this week to finalize his very first proposed budget to the tune of P3.3 trillion. To be fair, the proposed national budget – which is set to be submitted to Congress by August 15 – is not fully the Duterte administration’s budget. It was prepared under the remaining months of the Aquino administration and reflects, for the large part, the past administration’s thrust. In the course of deliberations both in the Cabinet and in Congress, there is still an opportunity to turn back from the dark ways of pork. 

At this point in time, the people’s vigilance in the budget process is all the more imperative. We want the President and his Cabinet to know: the Filipino people firmly reject the pork barrel system, whatever name or form it may take. – Rappler.com

Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan Partylist and is the lead consultant of the Makabayan bloc in Congress on the national budget.