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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Rice and pork

EDITORIALEditorial : Rice and pork
Inquirer
Posted date: October 21, 2006

AFTER years of feasting on pork, lawmakers seem to be making sure there will be rice to go with it this time. Aside from a bigger pork barrel, the Arroyo administration and its allies in the House of Representatives have allocated some P3 billion for a “feeding program” to be carried out in public elementary schools this year. For next year, the amount will be raised to almost P5 billion under the appropriations billed approved by the House. Under this program, instead of the “nutribun,” rice will be rationed to schoolchildren not only to reduce the incidence of malnutrition, but also to encourage class attendance.

Sen. Edgardo Angara had a mouthful to say about the program. He said it would not address the problem of malnutrition among children; it is a “disguised rice importation program using the schoolchildren as a façade,” and favoring importers who support the government; it is another huge pork barrel to be used for buying votes next elections.

Sen. Alfredo Lim agreed: “The long and short of it is, this [feeding program] is for the buying of votes.” It is “electioneering,” in violation of the Omnibus Election Code, he added.
Instead of defending the program, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya lashed back at Angara. “It’s a program that in its inception Senator Angara put in an amendment. He gave inputs and this program has now become the milk-and-breakfast program. So how can that be a scam?”
It would not be surprising if the suspicions of the two opposition senators are proven right. After all, this is an administration that, after grabbing the reins of power in 2001 under the banner of good governance and transparency, has been most remarkable for “missing” public funds, its aversion to accountability, and its doggedness in blocking investigations of irregularities linking any of its officials. And there are enough grounds to justify Angara’s and Lim’s anxieties. For one, the multibillion-peso feeding program reminds us of, among many other things, the P728-million fertilizer fund and the recovered $683 million (P38 billion) Marcos wealth, most of which reportedly vanished during the 2004 elections. For another, very few congressmen have shown any aversion to dipping their fingers into any project, especially when big sums are involved.
Then, too, the members of the majority coalition of the House of Representatives are known to love playing the “numbers game,” a game they played masterfully in the impeachment case against the President. They continue to flaunt their superior number in their campaign to change the Constitution. The feeding program is another opportunity for them to play the game -- this time to preserve their ranks.

In the budget for 2007 approved by the House, the congressmen have already “restored to their pre-2004 levels” (read: increased) the pork barrel allocations -- from P40 million to P70 million for each House member, and from P120 million to P200 million for each senator. Deputy Speaker Gerry Salapuddin and Rep. Eduardo Veloso of Leyte province justified the increase in a joint statement as “fair, not for election purposes, but for the government to pay back the people … for all their sacrifice to help save the country from its fiscal woes a couple of years ago.”

But were the people really deprived of their “due” when the pork barrel was supposedly slashed by P30 million during the last two years when the huge budget deficit was threatening to sink the economy? Not really, if we go by the unabashed admission of Rep. Joey Salceda of Albay province that pro-administration congressmen got P30 million more from Malacañang during the “lean” years. And it was certainly not just coincidence that those who got the added largesse were the same lawmakers who had closed ranks behind the beleaguered chief executive. In fact, those increased pork-barrel allocations had “payback” written all over them.

Salapuddin and Veloso assured the public that the increase in their pork barrel is “not for election purposes.” But at least Salceda is more honest. “I think the restoration is reasonable, next year being an election year,” he said.

With the larger congressional pork barrel supplemented by the rice distribution program, the outcome of next year’s elections is cooked -- in favor of the incumbent lawmakers, of course.

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