Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Pork barrel: Pigging out
First posted 01:25am (Mla time) Jan 04, 2006
By Juan V. Sarmiento Jr., Armand N. Nocum

FILIPINOS are vaguely aware that the pork barrel -- that euphemism for the joint raid on the National Treasury by the President and Congress in the name of infrastructure development -- is a source of fat kickbacks for the most dishonorable members of Congress.
But until August 1996 when the Inquirer published an award-winning series of articles, the public was largely in the dark about the magnitude of the amounts that regularly went into the pockets of legislators.
The most explosive reports in that series were the result of a meeting that month between a member of the House of Representatives and three Inquirer editors. The meeting at a nightspot in Quezon City was largely a social occasion among old friends wanting to catch up on one another's lives.
When the conversation turned to the subject of the items in the national budget that pertained to the pet projects of lawmakers, that is, the pork barrel, the congressman was quite happy to disclose the money trail.
Taking hold of a paper napkin, the lawmaker, who will continue to remain unnamed, illustrated exactly how much, in the form of "standard" amounts, the members of Congress and other officials got from government projects funded with the pork barrel.
He said the kickbacks were "SOP" -- standard operating practice -- among legislators and ranged from a low of 19 percent to a high of 52 percent of the cost of each project, which could be anything from dredging, rip rapping, asphalting, concreting and construction of school buildings.
The other major sources of kickbacks that he identified were public funds intended for medicines and textbooks.
A few days later, the tale of the money trail became the banner story of the Inquirer issue of August 13, accompanied by an illustration of a roasted pig.
The great revolt
The drawing showed which choice portions of the pig went to a congressman, a senator, the head of the pre-qualification bidding and awards committee, and the resident local auditor.
The publication of the list would spark what could be called "the great pork barrel revolt" of 1996 in Congress as legislators realized that not all congressmen and senators were created equal -- some got a bigger slice of the pork than others.
The pork barrel is a "hallowed" tradition in the history of the legislature in the country, dating back to the establishment of Congress itself. It is an accepted way by which legislators can be given access to public funds that they can distribute as largesse to their constituents.
The customary pork was known as the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) in the budget. Each senator was allocated P18 million and each congressman P12.5 million.
A pig by any other name...
During the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos, the pork barrel system was expanded with the Congressional Initiative Allocation (CIA), under which funds were inserted in the budgets of government departments for projects in which legislators would have a say, giving them an additional source of pork.
The Inquirer series was sparked by a July 22, 1996 story in which the chair of the Presidential Commission Against Graft and Corruption, Eufemio Domingo, denounced what he called the "criminal waste of hard-earned money by Congress through pork barrel appropriations amounting to P20 billion over the past eight years."
The issue would have died down as such stories are wont to. The issue of pork barrel irregularities were nothing new, after all.
But then the unnamed congressman decided to spill the beans and furnish the Inquirer with the list of the kickback beneficiaries.
Worse than hell's fury
And the resulting ruckus in Congress stirred some members of the public into going to the Inquirer with their own stories of irregularities in the implementation of the pork barrel-funded projects.
Hell hath no fury than a legislator denied his pork barrel. Unhappy about the share that they got, congressmen began turning on each other.
Several took to the House floor or went on radio to denounce the unfair allocations. Loyal administration congressmen felt insulted that their P21 million in CIA paled in comparison with the allocations for the most vociferous critics of President Ramos and House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.
The list showed that Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora and Makati Representative Joker Arroyo, for example, got P103 million and P38.1 million, respectively.
The then Deputy Speaker Hernando Perez said he could not accept that the late Representative Rolando Andaya, who headed the appropriations committee, got P3.6 billion.
Pork even for relatives
Perez, who was allocated P76 million, said the fact that others got P100 million "makes me look like an idiot."
Iloilo Representative Raul Gonzalez noted that some of the contractors for projects funded with pork barrel were relatives of congressmen or officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Others revealed that 23 construction firms were owned by House members or their close relatives.
The House was in crisis. De Venecia suspended the session one afternoon to prevent a free-for-all.
The Speaker then called a caucus where he promised to resolve the matter by giving the rebellious representatives more pork, averting a threat to declare all House positions vacant.
Who was Deep Throat?
Speculation on the source of the Inquirer kickbacks list was so intense that on August 12, two congressmen from Samar fought on the House floor, one of them accusing the other of being the source of the Inquirer story.
Various congressmen demanded an investigation to find out who leaked the list to the Inquirer.
Congressmen suspected Senator Edgardo Angara of leaking the list. Senator Ernesto Maceda delivered a privilege speech blaming the "ignorant media" for the "demolition job versus the entire Congress."
The Inquirer decided to come out with a story on the source of the list. It turned out to be a Department of Budget and Management official who was so exasperated with the floods in his area that he gave the list to the Inquirer's congressman source in the hope that it would result in a more equitable sharing of the CIA and free up funds for flood mitigation and control.
P1-B libel suit
With the public pressure, the DBM would confirm that the list was authentic.
In mid-August, De Venecia declared that the House would file a P1-billion libel suit against the Inquirer.
Gonzalez upped the ante by announcing that the House would have the Inquirer offices "padlocked" on the grounds that its series on the pork barrel was seditious.
The threats boomeranged on Congress. Church people, local government organizations, school officials, children and media groups flooded the Inquirer with calls, fax messages and mail, expressing outrage against the pork barrel and promising support for the paper.
House retreats
Children sent their savings to help the Inquirer defray the cost of fighting a libel suit, and people sent leads for stories, documents and pictures of cases of pork barrel misuse.
Rather than be cowed, the Inquirer went on to publish the entire CIA list, starting on August 15.
Amid the public outrage, the House dropped its plan to sue the Inquirer.
Did the kickbacks stop because of the Inquirer series? Most likely, it did not.
But the series has led to reforms in the pork barrel system.
No more basketball courts
In 2001, the DBM started posting on its website the list of pork barrel projects that congressmen and senators had identified for funding. It also issued a memorandum circular disallowing projects like basketball courts and waiting sheds.
During the 12th Congress in 2001, the pork barrel was renamed the Priority Development Assistance Fund, which was limited to funding "hard projects" like roads, bridges, hospitals and day care centers, and "soft projects" like support for the Department of Social Welfare and Development and procurement of seeds.
Some legislators completely gave up their pork barrel.