The dispute over “pork barrel” was the reason the 2019 national budget bill was approved only in March, 2019, when it should have been approved in December, 2018. Because of the three-month delay, the government had to use a reenacted 2018 national budget, just so normal government operations could continue and government workers could get paid.
But new projects could not be implemented. These included many infrastructures under “Build, Build, Build” – roads and bridges, airports and seaports, school buildings and other government structures. As government spending accounts for a big part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the national GDP sank in those first three months of 2019. We can only hope that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) can make up in the rest of the year for those three months of inaction.
Incoming Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano hopes to avoid the 2018 House-Senate conflict that caused the budget delay. The House and Senate, he said, must be able to clearly define what is “pork barrel” which the Supreme Court banned in 2014 and agree on a national budget on time, that is, before the start of 2020.
Once the national budget is approved by Congress and signed by the President, according to the Supreme Court, lawmakers cannot intervene or participate in the implementation of any project listed in the budget. This is to avoid the old practice of lawmakers getting huge commissions — 20 percent or even more – from public works contractors chosen to carry out the projects.
In the delayed 2019 national budget, some P75 billion had been appropriated for projects in specific districts, placed in the bill by the congressmen of those districts. Senators sought to remove these items, claiming they were “pork barrel.” Finally, after three months of disagreement, the disputed budget was approved and sent to President Duterte for his signature. He simply vetoed the P76-billion projects.
There is indeed need to avoid the huge allocations that some congressmen in the past managed to include in the national budget but, surely, there are worthy projects that some congressmen seek for their districts. It could be just a matter of definition, of clarification, between the senators and congressmen.
Incoming Speaker Cayetano has raised the problem early in the hope, which we all share, that this old “pork barrel” issue will not delay the national budget – with all its unwanted consequences – as it did last year.