Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

SC’s unanimous vote on PDAF's unconstitutionality boosts sagging Filipino people’s morale-- at its lowest in collective memory---and augurs for what citizens hope would be new era of reforms: an end to political patronage and hopefully, dynasty. But would SC strike out DAP too, or would it yield presidential pork as atoning favor to Palace?

Supreme Court of the Philippines

The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) as unconstitutional was a most welcome fresh wind amid the two-week calamity atmosphere in our country.

The SC's decision to permanently scrap the annual PDAF, amounting to P25.2 billion in next year’s budget, and order prosecution of all those legislators who abused it in past and present regimes, was just the right boost to a sagging people’s morale. 

The nation has been at perhaps its lowest ebb in our history---not only because of the crippling devastation of the super-typhoon and our government’s failure to respond adequately, but also due to the damaged credibility of our leaders on account of the pork barrel scandal that rocked Congress and the Palace over the past four months.

Never before has our standing in the international scene been as challenged as now---thanks to the PDAF scandals and lousy government response to the super-typhoon crisis.


Consider, for instance, the UN directive to assisting US marines not to course any relief delivery to government officials. Consider too, the remark of the Pinoy editor of a New Zealand newspaper for Filipino migrant workers who chose to ignore the advice of our embassy there to course typhoon relief to government bank accounts in PH, preferring the Red Cross instead.  “I’m not going to mince words,” said Mel Fernandez, “We would like every cent to reach those poor people rather than get waylaid.” 

A Singapore newspaper’s banner, “Philippine corruption magnifies effects of typhoon,” gave the universal impression that our government cannot be trusted.

Thus the SC decision came like a fresh wind boosting our people’s spirits, and promising the twilight of political patronage and ultimately of the political dynasty system. As an FB entry put it, the birth of a new era of reforms.


There were many things remarkable about that 14-0 vote, something that does not come easy in the Court where each justice is an island unto himself (the last time such a vote was arrived at  was on the Hacienda Luisita issue in early 2012, which became a direct factor in the impeachment and conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona).

For instance, the 14 votes included those of five justices appointed by President Aquino, led by Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.  The anti-PDAF decision was penned by another P-Noy appointee, Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, and the majority included Justice Marvic Leonen who had often sounded like a repeater of the administration on issues.


But on the unconstitutionality of the PDAF all 14 of them were united---and a popular theory is that the Court was on a mercy mission to save our nation’s reputation, in the wake of the Napoles scandal that provoked the biggest rally in the second Aquino reign, and the beating of our respectability in the Yolanda aftermath.

Had the PDAF not been scrapped more rallies were being projected, and a move to legislate its abolition through the constitutionally-mandated People's Initiative, led by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, would have gained ground.


As an aside, note that the SC's 15th vote was a prudent abstention from Justice Presbitero Velasco, whose wife, Lorna Q. Velasco, is an incumbent party-list member of the House and therefore affected by the PDAF issue.

By the way, it’s not correct, as reported in the media, that the reason for Justice Velasco’s abstention is that his son, Lord Allan Velasco, is an incumbent representative, for his opponent last May, Marinduque Rep. Gina Reyes, was proclaimed rightful winner by the local Comelec Board and then by Speaker Sonny Belmonte. Velasco's protest is now in the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal. 


That all 14 justices came together to legally strike down the PDAF---after upholding this issue three times in the past--- and ensure that the multi-billion Malampaya Fund will be used only for energy promotion purposes, as the law expressly provides, may have been their collective reaction to the moral and political urgency of our time.The SC justices were particularly aggrieved at the lump-sum nature of the pork and legislators’ ability to signify recipients (fake NGOs pala ang karamihan!) with zero accounting.

Of course the legislators are fighting back, while Justice Secretary Leila de Lima intrudes once again into SC territory by warning the magistrates that curtailing the Disbursement Accelerating Program (DAP), now pending before the Court, would seriously affecting typhoon rehabilitation effort. 

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, a rabid Pro-Noynoy ally, bitterly complained that the SC decision only saw the ”bad side” of the PDAF, and “not its good effects,” such as funding scholars and caring for sick people. Frankly this argument about their scholars stinks, for many supposed beneficiaries are fictitious or the kin of their ward leaders---hardly the poor of society. Besides, as Senior Justice Antonio Carpio retorted, such funds can be drawn from other legal sources. 


Some solons hit the justices’ ‘insensitivity’---accusing them of playing to the gallery and capitalizing on the people’s outrage after the Napoles scams exploded.  Doubtless there is this factor, for how can the justices ignore the poverty gripping the countryside from where the PDAF was stolen---how the number of those who admitted to self-rated hunger has risen in recent months.

Now the solons are out to rescue their unspent PDAF for 2013---all P14.5 billion frozen by the SC earlier---and channel it (daw!) to areas devastated by Yolanda, through a “supplemental budget” they plan to rush in time for this year’s budget.  The public will, of course, be suspicious of Congress’ move, especially since DBM Secretary Butch Abad came out openly looking for ways to skirt the Court’s ruling. 

In the public mind, all this could be a mere palusot for the pols to get their hands on those funds again.


But more than any other factor, what influenced the SC justices to throw out the PDAF and unauthorized use of the Malampaya Fund was the government’s snail-like response to the calamity spawned by the worst-ever typhoon---that affected all of us Filipinos.

In a text response to a query forwarded to me after the SC decision was announced, I opined that “the SC’s unanimous decision is a repudiation of our rotten political system which impacted, too, on the government’s inability to respond decisively to the unprecedented crisis spawned by Yolanda. Instead of investing in, say, choppers and C-130s crucial to relief operations in calamities, unfortunately many billions were squandered by our politicians. “


What was gratifying was that the justices united on an issue that goes to the heart of the P-Noy administration. The pork barrel was a weapon the Chief Executive had used to exact votes from members of Congress on crucial issues he had pushed, such as the RH bill and the impeachment and conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona. 

Without the PDAF, however---and perhaps soon, with the good chance that the SC would also strike out the DAP, a.k.a. the "presidential pork," President Aquino---so conscious of his popularity rating and political power---would be rendered a lameduck.


The issue now being argued before the SC is the future of the DAP, amounting to P1.3 trillion (that includes, aside from Malampaya Fund, the PCSO and Pagcor Funds, a.k.a.the “President’s Social Fund”), which became the logical target of numerous citizens’ petitions for abolition after PDAF.

Anti-DAP petitioners argue that if PDAF was ruled as unconstitutional, all the more should the presidential pork be struck out as it arrogates unto the executive the prerogative reserved for the legislature to pass the budget. Moreover, it has been noted that the Constitution allows savings to be realigned only within the same department. But President Aquino gave P50 million in additional funds from DAP to 19 senators, after they convicted CJ Corona---clearly a violation as well as a bribe, highly immoral.

There is nagging fear that while the SC dealt the PDAF a blow---it could look the other way with regard to DAP, as a atonement to Malacanang. A legal luminary opines, however, that should the SC do this, it would destroy itself.

Citizens’ vigilance has to continue on this child of the PDAF.

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