Major milestone

The Supreme Court decision banishing the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and directing “within the bounds of reasonable dispatch” the prosecution of the scammers is a major milestone in nation-building. Penned by Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, the ruling champions good governance and abhors corruption.

Limitations on legislators. Based on the Court’s press statement (the decision’s full text has not been released as of this writing), the ruling applied the doctrine of separation of powers, which gives Congress the sole power to make laws and the President the sole prerogative to implement them. The Court struck down the legal provisions granting legislators executive prerogatives and those giving the President legislative powers.

Last Sunday, I wrote that reforming governance, eliminating corruption and achieving first-world status is a work in progress that cannot be done overnight. This work takes patience, innovation and several intermediate steps or milestones.
In reaction, several readers, citing the frustrating ups and downs of governance under past regimes, doubted we would ever reach our goal of an ideal Philippines. I replied that we should never lose hope in the rule of law as the basis of reform because the alternatives, like revolution, coup d’état, or military rule, are worse. Well, this landmark decision not only instills hope and builds an enduring milestone; it also provides the foundation for more milestones.

The Court’s banishment of the PDAF and “similar pork barrel laws, past and present” was not entirely unexpected. Pleasantly surprising, however, are the unanimity of the justices, the emphatic language used, and the all-encompassing coverage of the ruling.

Pleasantly surprising, too, is the decision’s all-embracing command that “all past and present Congressional Pork Barrel Laws, such as the previous PDAF and CDF (Countrywide Development Fund) Articles and the various Congressional insertions” are also unconstitutional. Note, however, that the Court limited this mantra to the laws that “conferred personal lump sum allocations to legislators from which they are able to fund specific projects which they themselves determine.”

In other words, the Court did not necessarily reverse previous decisions that declared the pork barrel constitutional in the cases where the legislators had no power to determine the specific projects, and where their “intervention” was merely recommendatory and not binding on the executive agencies.

Limitations on President. To stress, the Constitution granted the power of lawmaking, including the power to approve the budget, exclusively to Congress. Thus, any law that gives the President legislative authority to determine how public money is to be spent, or to choose the projects to be funded, would be unconstitutional as an undue delegation of legislative power.

Using this principle, the Court, in the same decision, restricted the discretion of the President in spending public funds. It ruled that lump-sum appropriations can be spent only for specific purposes or projects, and cannot give the President unlimited choices.

Consequently, Presidential Decree (PD) 910, which gives the President the authority to use the Malampaya Fund for energy-related projects and “for such other purposes as may be hereafter directed by the President” constitutes an undue delegation of legislative power. Thus, it invalidated the quoted portion because it gives the chief executive the legislative power to determine what those “other purposes” are.
Similarly, PD 1869 gives the President the authority to use his Social Funds to help victims of calamities and “to finance priority infrastructure development projects.” The Court held that the quoted portion is unconstitutional because it grants the chief executive legislative power to identify what the “priority infrastructure projects” are.

Other milestones. The Court did not just declare the PDAF unconstitutional. It went further by holding that the unspent PDAF should be returned to the National Treasury. Which gives Congress the opportunity to build another milestone if it hurriedly approves a supplemental budget using the unspent PDAF for the relief and rehabilitation of the earthquake and typhoon survivors, as recommended in my Nov. 3 column titled “Using pork barrel to help calamity victims.”

I opined there that the unspent pork barrel funds could no longer be realigned as savings because by their unconstitutionality, they became part of the unappropriated general funds of the government. And the only way to utilize them is by the passage of a new law by Congress. Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte are spearheading this milestone.

As earlier mentioned, the Court directed the investigation and prosecution of “all government officials and/or private individuals for possible criminal offenses related to the irregular, improper and/or unlawful disbursements/utilization of all funds under the Pork Barrel System.”

Indeed, fast actions on these criminal charges by the secretary of justice and the ombudsman would be important milestones. A greater milestone would be the speedy conviction, after due process, of the malefactors.

So, dear doubting readers, there is hope. But to attain the ideal Philippines, we need to keep fighting for more milestones, like the Anti-Dynasty bill, Freedom of Information bill, automated election reforms, voter education, and the election of an honest and competent president in 2016. I will discuss these and other milestones later.

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