Party-list rep as district caretaker a first

MANILA, Philippines – It might have struck critics as political opportunism when Akbayan Rep Kaka Bag-ao got appointed as caretaker of Dinagat Islands and has since been given control of the development funds allotted for the province’s lone congressional district.

Bag-ao is running for district representative of Dinagat in May as a guest candidate of the President’s Liberal Party (LP), and the appointment is seen as way to boost her chances at winning.

It is the first time since the country elected party-list representatives 14 years ago that a sectoral nominee has been given power over a district. It is therefore a break from the 25-year-old tradition of filling vacancies in Congress.

However, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr and the ruling LP to which he belongs can justify the appointment. Precisely because tradition guides the selection of who stands in for a lawmaker who dies, is expelled, or is appointed to an executive post, there are no hard and fast rules to observe.

The House took Dinagat Rep Ruben Ecleo Jr’s name out of its roster after the Supreme Court affirmed Sandiganbayan's decision on graft charges against him in July. Ecleo, now a fugitive, was also convicted of parricide in April for killing his wife. 

Belmonte quietly appointed Bag-ao as the province's legislative liaison officer or "caretaker" in October, or 3 months after Ecleo was expelled. Very few people knew about the appointment until Wednesday, January 2, when the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported it.

As caretaker, she has so far received a total of P137,375,000 in Ecleo’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or "pork barrel" meant for Ecleo’s district,  data from the Department of Budget and Management show.

This sparked off complaints from district and party-list representatives who have been critical of the President and of Akbayan – they have not been receiving their pork barrel.

A matter of ‘common sense’

Republic Act No. 6645 or "An Act Prescribing the Manner of Filling a Vacancy in the Congress of the Philippines" states that if a congressional seat is vacated one a half years before the next election, the House can ask the Commission on Elections to hold special polls to elect a new representative.

In the current Congress, when 3 congressmen died and one resigned 18 months before the elections, they were replaced through special elections:

The law, however, is silent on what can be done when the vacancy arises when less than half of the congressional term is remaining, when it’s nearer the next regular election – like in the case of Dinagat Islands.

By tradition, the Speaker appoints as caretaker of the district either:

So when, for example, Sorsogon 1st district Rep Salvador Escudero III died in August this year, the Speaker appointed as caretaker of his district the 2nd district congressman, Deogracias Ramos Jr. And when Bohol 2nd district Rep Erico Aumentado died on Christmas Day, Belmonte named caretaker the former’s son and chief of staff, Erico Aristotle. 

All caretaker solons get to dispense the PDAF meant for the district they are looking after, to ensure that development services are delivered to constituents who lost their elected representatives.

In the case of Bag-ao, except for her being a party-list representative, she is in line with the first two traditions.

Dinagat Islands is a lone district, separated by waters from nearby provinces, and – until a September ruling by the Supreme Court – was alternately treated administratively as either a separate province or a municipality of Surigao del Norte.

Baga-ao told Rappler that the congressmen of nearby provinces, and of what used to be Dinagat’s mother district in Surigao del Norte, all endorsed her: Surigao del Norte’s Francisco Matugas and Guillermo Romarate Jr, and Surigao del Sur’s Philip Pichay.

She said Dinagat Vice Gov Jade Ecleo, sister of Ruben, also verbally recommended her to be the caretaker of the district. Bag-ao is running against Jade’s estranged sister, Gwendolyn Ecleo.

Altough Bag-ao is not officially a member of LP, her Akbayan is a key ally of the ruling party. It campaigned for President Aquino in the 2010 presidential race, and its leaders hold crucial posts in the Aquino government: Commission on Human Rights chairwoman Etta Rosales, Presidential Political Adviser Ronald Llamas, and National Anti-Poverty Commission head Joel Rocamora. Former Akbayan Rep Risa Hontiveros is running for the Senate in May under the ruling coalition.

Belmonted added another “rule” in choosing a caretaker: “I guess reasonableness and common sense.”

In a text message to the Philippine News Agency, the Speaker said the party-list representative is a sitting congresswoman who happens to be from Dinagat Islands and therefore "knowledgeable about the province." 

First ‘pork’ release

Appointed on October 1, Bag-ao received a Special Allotment Release Order for Dinagat Islands only in December.

It was the first time the district got its PDAF since the 15th Congress opened, owing to the Supreme Court’s flip-flopping on the creation of Dinagat as a separate province between 2010 and 2012. Dinagat status as a province was upheld only in September.

Bag-ao has maintained that all her pork barrel allocations are accounted for and the budget was based on consultations conducted at the barangay level. 

Four days after she was appointed caretaker, Bag-ao filed her certificate of candidacy as the representative of the lone district of Dinagat. 

Another caretaker congressman, Liberal Party member Ramos of Sorsogon, received the P14 million in pork barrel for the late congressman Escudero’s district.

Double standard

Some opposition lawmakers are complaining that while caretaker congressmen are receiving double pork barrel – one for their original district or sector, and another for the district they are taking care of – those who have been critical against the administration have not received their allocations. 

Zambales Rep Mitos Magsaysay, who is running for senator under the "constructive opposition" United Nationalist Alliance, has not received any PDAF in 2012. She said all congressmen are entitled to those funds, and these should not be used as a tool to "control congressmen or help them win elections."

Other representatives who did not receive their pork barrel in 2012 include Pampanga Rep Dato Arroyo and Iloilo Rep Augusto Syjuco, all allies of former President Gloria Arroyo.

Representatives from the Makabayan bloc, a coalition of party-list groups opposed to Akbayan, did not receive their pork barrel funds in 2012. These include Bayan Muna’s Teodoro Casiño, Kabataan’s Raymond Palatino, Gabriela’s Emmy de Jesus and Luz Ilagan, and ACT Teachers’ Antonio Tinio. 

Tinio said President Aquino is no different from Arroyo who used the pork barrel to control lawmakers. 

"It's a reality of patronage politics that Malacañang makes use of its power to release or withhold pork barrel in the amounts, the timing, and to whom it so chooses in order to exert influence on legislature, make or break election campaigns, and build or destroy political bailiwicks," Tinio said in a text message. 

In August, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a leader of the Liberal Party, did not deny that some lawmakers were not getting their pork barrel, and justified that it was a political reality.

"We are politicians. We should know the possible consequences of our actions. That's the political reality we face," Abad said. – with reports from Voltaire Tupaz