By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City
The Philippine Congress is the bosom of corruption in the Philippines. Governance starts with this legislative body with the creation of laws of the land. Congress is the single largest and most powerful government office, currently holding 289 representatives from congressional districts and 24 senators elected nationwide, that plunders the economy of the country systematically.
I have experienced working for six months at the Lower House. And in that shortest stint of work, I saw under my nose the operating system of the legislative houses that is horrifyingly corrupt.
Every year, the one most important piece of legislation Congress passes is the national budget. Early in their term, the solons decide which projects (local and national) to fund and submit for approval by the entire body.
It is the busiest time for congressmen, more so for their staff, who actually do the writing and ground work. I remember that Speaker Jose de Venecia had to order the doors of the plenary hall closed in the wee hours of the night so that no congressman would escape, ensuring a quorum in the deliberations and final voting for the national budget.
I had to cut short my work in Congress, because everyday, it became harder to stomach the transactions of commissions, gifts, and deals. These were easily done through telephone calls, or over cups of coffee or glasses of wine by legislators, contractors, and key people at the executive offices. The fat layers of commissions literally leave nothing or a measly amount for project implementation.
It is not even a question of whether or not we are engaged in sustainable economic activities. It is a question of whether we have enough funds to do anything effectively, because of how unbelievably money is stolen and chipped off from the highest to the lowest levels of government structure.
Central to this outrageous commission system is the pork barrel fund which is allotted per representative (P200 million for senators and P70 million for representatives per year) and expended upon his or her discretion. This fund makes them truly feel like royalty. They decide which projects to fund, by how much, and for whom vis-a-vis lobbying constituent groups, businesses, and even the executive arms of government, and then cook them up into local and national laws.
Many legislators would decide to build roads and bridges in their districts because of the fat commissions they get. A kilometer of road would normally cost P10 million in 2001. But because of the layers of commissions that are being taken out from the original budget, the implementing budget of that road would like be a million pesos, thus creating a substandard road.
To my personal knowledge, many congressman would rather invest in and pass laws for projects where they gain more commissions, such as those in telecommunications, infrastructure, and transportation (also known as hard projects) rather than agriculture, education, and science (or the soft projects). Nope, they won’t buy cattle, despite its value to farmers and the sustainability of the program in agriculture because they get a very small margin of commissions from it. What we have is a cacophony of projects that are not cohesive and comprehensively looking at sustainability and stability of the economy.
Worst, pork barrel funds are outrightly laundered into personal accounts or bogus non-government organizations. The case of Janet Napoles may just be one too many of such schemes.
The pork actually completes the power of the legislators to become quasi-executives for projects of their own desire on one hand, as they have the inherent power to pass laws to legitimize such projects. The system is actually creating monstrous thieves.
Another milking cow for legislators is the monthly operating budget (about P200,000 at the time I was working in Congress) for each office which is not subject to audit. This operational fund is earmarked for research for new legislation and for impact studies of existing laws and how effective these have been.
Because it is not subject to audit, the representatives decide arbitrarily what to do with these funds. Some of these monies are used for vacation or shopping sprees.
Finally, there is the Automatic Appropriations Act which allots 40% of the national budget to debt service, another factor why appropriations continue to be anemic.
Many of these debts need to be reviewed. Thus, paying back to debtors, without considering the usefulness of these debts, is like approving without thinking. But there has not been a substantive effort to re-think this law. And once again, it is a rich source of commissions and perks for those managing this budget.
While the Philippine economy continues to have insufficient appropriations for education, health, agriculture, science, and other social services, the leaders are happy and could not, for the love of their lives, eat and digest all the excessive money and privileges they get from the system.
In the meantime, to finance the ailing economy, Filipinos working abroad and sending money to their families continue to be the natural, most reliable source of funds to get by the short term needs of food and shelter and long term needs such as education and business.
This is the system that operates in the Philippines. No matter how much money is siphoned into the families in the country, through sweat and blood of those working abroad, it will remain a short-term solution.
The national system that hovers above us is laden with greed and corruption and won’t permit a fair and sensible economic development program that will mean long term benefits and stability the country. All is driven by selfish greed for power and money.
There is budget for social services and economic development in the Philippines, but most of these are lost to kick-backs and commissions.
So, the ordinary people dance as fast as they can to be able to make both ends meet, but the supposed leaders bask in unimaginable, stolen wealth. The legislators won’t stop themselves. It is time for the people to stop this now. Injustice prevails not because of the abusers, but because of the abused who allow them to thrive.
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