Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, a constitutional law expert, said in a radio interview yesterday, that under the Constitution, the Supreme Court is no longer bound by the so-called “political-question doctrine,” under which a court should refuse to decide an issue involving the exercise of discretionary power by the executive or legislative branch of government.
Santiago was commenting on the view taken by some pork barrel advocates that the Supreme Court has no power to act on the pending pork cases because it is prohibited by the “political-question doctrine.”
“Constitutional scholars are united in the view that under the present Constitution, the Supreme Court is no longer inhibited from deciding political questions. The Constitution now provides that judicial power includes the duty of the court to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government, even in cases involving political questions,” she said, quoting Art. 8, Sec. 1, paragraph 2.
Santiago said that the cases questioning the constitutionality of pork barrel, or lump-sum appropriations, present a question of whether the political branches of government, meaning the executive and the legislative branches, have committed grave abuse of discretion in spending the people’s money.
She defined abuse of discretion as “a decision that is asserted to be grossly unsound, unreasonable, illegal, or unsupported by the evidence.”
Santiago, the Senate’s constitutional law expert, defined “discretion” as: “the public official’s power or right to act in certain circumstances according to personal judgment and conscience, often in an official or representative capacity.”
Asked by a radio interviewer what advice she will give to President Aquino, who has defended the pork barrel, Santiago replied: “Life is a consequence of our moral choices.”
In the same interview, Santiago said that it is “not feasible” to implement the proposal by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno that a law prohibiting pork barrel or lump-sum appropriations should be passed using the peoples initiative system provided for by the Constitution.
“That is an idealistic and constitutional proposal. However, I am afraid it will not be feasible, because the number of signatures required on a petition is too high and can be subverted by vote-buying, to convince voters to stay away,” she said.
Under the law on people’s initiative, the people can directly propose and then enact a law, but only after the registration of a petition which must contain at least 10% of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least 3% of the registered voters.
“The Commission on Election says that in the last 2010 elections, there were 50,896,164 number of registered voters, so the petition must be signed by at least 5,089,616 voters,” she said.
Santiago said that it would be too expensive to conduct information and education campaign for voters so that they can understand the meaning and context of an anti-pork barrel law under the system of initiative and referendum.
She said that a better alternative to the Supreme Court petitions and to the proposed petition for initiative and referendum is a Budget Control and Impoundment Act, originally proposed by President Aquino when he was a senator.
“I have already re-filed President Aquino’s original measure, with the permission of his office staff. It provides that, like its American version, after Congress authorizes appropriations, and the executive department does not intend to spend the budget items for which he is authorized, then the President has to go back to Congress with a request to impound the appropriations. The power to grant or not the request to impound will continue to belong to Congress. Thus, such a law will preserve the congressional power of the purse,” she said.
Santiago said that the Senate should prioritize a Budget Control and Impoundment Act, if it is sincere about the budget reforms.
“President Aquino was correct when he was a senator. The President should not make a habit of requesting large budgets for some departments and then, in the middle of the year, juggle the funds, repackage it as Disbursement Acceleration Program, and spend it the way he wants,” Santiago said.
The senator said that the Constitution authorizes a transfer of appropriations only from savings, which she defined as money saved, particularly sums of money saved on a regular basis, by means of economizing.
Santiago said that the constitutional term “savings,” is a so-called term of art, meaning that it should be strictly construed.
“Under the rules of constitutional construction, as a general rule, a constitutional provision should be construed as mandatory. There is always a strong inclination in favor of giving obligatory force to a provision of the Constitution,” she said.