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Reflections on PDAF: Dieting without Pork

/ 06:40 PM September 29, 2013

I have been asked by my Rotarian friends to articulate my views on the Priority Development Assistance Fund after a lively discussion with our Club’s Guest of Honor, Congressman Roilo Golez. Like him, I am an “ex-porker,” having partaken of my CDF or Countrywide Development Fund as it was then called during my three terms in Congress.

Like every Congressman, I believed that the PDAF serves as an equalizer in our country’s development. It fills the lack in many remote districts on the periphery of our country which do not show on the screen of city and capital centric bureaucrats with their bias for macro planning.

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PDAF must go

Who but the Congressman of Tawi-Tawi, for example, would know that Sitangkay or Simunol Island needs a classroom built on stilts above the seaweed plantations? And that school children paddle their way to school? A congressman serves a unique role as conduit for the people he is in touch with national government officials he has access to.

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But after the Napoles scam was uncovered, my position has changed completely. The PDAF must go.

And there is no way that the PDAF should be allowed to resurface in whatever shape or form.

But to be fair to the honest and hardworking former colleagues in Congress, I will be the first to admit that their PDAF reaches their constituents. But in what form or manner they benefit their constituency is the point of the debate.

Let me cite two examples. Congressman Roilo Golez is one of the more respected members of Congress who does his homework and consults with his constituents. Yet you may question the use of his PDAF in constructing the most number of covered courts in the country—a total of 45—one for each barangay, as he himself has disclosed.

While we think there may be better uses for the funds, who are we to question it if that is what his constituents want? Covered courts are used not only for sports development but also for people assembly, auditorium, venues for graduation and as evacuation centers.

Another former colleague was the late Congressman Antonio Diaz who devoted his PDAF solely for scholarships. He supported a mindboggling total of 40,000 scholars!

He did not care much for hard infra because to him, education was far more important to his constituents. And no one doubted that the money reached and benefited his scholars.

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I recall having boasted that my “hard” projects—farm-to-market roads, bridges, small river impounding projects (SRIP) for the farmers, fishing ports for fishermen, school buildings, classrooms, hospitals, clinics, waterwells, and spring water developments for the highlands, etc. would leave a longer lasting legacy and benefit a far greater number of people. But who was I to say that to him or his scholars?

But now, I join the majority who believe that the evil that the PDAF spawns is greater than the good it was intended to do. No safeguards are fool-proof for those who know how to beat the system.

Even just allowing Congressmen (and certainly not the Senators who are without specific constituencies) to identify projects in the budget is cause enough for the PDAF to rear its different but just as ugly head.

The Congressman will always have a way of letting it be known to the District Engineer, or Penro, etc., that the line item project in his district was placed in the budget because of his intervention. And that is enough cue for them to favor his preferred contractor or supplier.

And for items such as medical expenses and scholarships for the deserving and needy, why not course the funds directly to the hospitals or clinics, and the State Universities and Colleges (SUCs)? They are far more competent in screening applicants based on qualifications and need.

Why should the office of the Congressman or Governor be the office to dispense medical assistance or scholarships? And for burial assistance and transportation fare for “balik-probinsya” program, the DSWD can do an even better job in dispensing such assistance. If the Department can identify those deserving for enrollment in the Conditional Cash Transfer program, it can do the job of screening applicants for scholarships or medical assistance as well.

Patronage politics

I find it most ridiculous for a congressman or governor to dole out medicines or cash for medical procedures when the people can go directly to the hospital, e.g. PGH, Philippine Heart Center or Kidney Center, or provincial/district hospitals for assistance, or to hand out checks to parents of scholars for enrolment. Again, why not give the funds directly to UP or SUC which has a more competent screening board for scholarships, just like any public or private universities or schools?

This is an opportunity to do away not only with the PDAF but also of patronage politics and “EPALism.”

The question, however, is asked: Once the PDAF is removed from the legislators’ hands, is it now safe with the executive departments? We only have to be reminded that Undersecretary Joc Joc Bolante operated by his lonesome in the Department of Agriculture and that the P900-million Malampaya funds for energy development that were looted by the bureaucrats did not involve the PDAF. All they had to do was to forge the signatures of mayors and get names from the phone book for the required list of beneficiaries. One can also recall General Garcia, who dipped into the Armed Forces funds and used them as “pabaon” in the “Game of the Generals.” Then there is the textbooks scam in the Department of Education, or the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ reforestation funds that go to smoke yearly as reforested areas are intentionally set to fire. The list can go on, including this pre-Napoles story that must be told: While walking to the Plenary Hall of Congress during my third term, a retired actress who still carried her seductive allure, greeted me from the gallery and asked if I needed medicines for my constituents. She had enough supply for immediate delivery; all I had to do was sign the quotation as my CDF still had sufficient amount to answer for the stock. She would “take care of the rest” with the Department, referring presumably to the DOH. That she knew I had enough balance in my CDF only meant that she also had connection with the DBM. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if the elaborate PDAF scam was likewise concocted in the deep bowels of the Executive departments and agencies with the participation of recruits of the Napoles type. As word spread of the exceptionally generous share that she gave out to PDAF holders, Legislators and their Chiefs of Staff started a beeline to her office at the Discovery Suites.

So, are we completely defenseless against the marauders of public funds? The answer is no! By removing the PDAF completely, we will now have a better chance in curtailing corruption.

Oversight function

Congress, without the weight of the PDAF baggage it carries, can do a better job of exercising its oversight functions over the Executive.

It can even insist on the one-fund concept,  regardless whether the source is revenue coming from taxes or from the operations of Malampaya, Pagcor or the PCSO.

Thus, it can even scrutinize the use of the President’s Social Fund. With clean hands, Congress can reassert its moral authority to restore a real check and balance so needed in our government.

(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author was a three-term congressman of the First District of Bataan. He was also chair and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority and subsequently, chair of the Bases Conversion Development Authority until he ran for Congressman in the last election. He is currently chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Nueva Caceres. Feedback at [email protected] and [email protected])

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