Dear good and honest Congressperson

Joy Aceron
'I enjoin others to try to fill-up the blank below and send the letter to good and honest Congresspersons you know too'

There are those in Congress who are there to really serve. I have no doubt. They are good and honest legislators who know and understand the importance and values of the Legislature – to create laws, to oversee the executive in its use of the executive powers and to represent the voice of the people from around the country – with Congress ideally being the physical embodiment of a country’s general will.

Yet, these good and honest legislators know there are realities. They need to deliver what is expected of them by their constituencies, most of whom are in need of immediate services and assistance, who hardly appreciate law-making, the exercise of oversight powers or deliberations in Congress.

More importantly, these legislators understand they can only continue to serve if their constituencies would vote for them. And that vote depends not on how good the laws they crafted were nor how well they performed in floor deliberations nor if they were able to hold the executive to account, but whether they provided services and brought projects to their locality.

I wrote the letter below (with minor revisions to hide some particulars in the earlier draft) in response to a letter of a Congressperson, who I believe is good and honest.

I enjoin others to try to fill-up the blank below and send the letter to good and honest Congresspersons you know too. We need allies in Congress to push the pork abolition call forward.

Dear Cong.__________,

I appreciate your emphatic letter in response to the pork barrel issue and I do not doubt that you are among the Congresspersons who use your Philippine Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) with transparency and accountability.

I can’t help myself from attempting to respond to your plea as I strongly believe that you, a responsible and honest public servant who is a champion of transparency and accountability, might just be one of the most critical allies a PDAF abolition advocacy would have and need. This call, if heeded to, can effect a fundamental change in our political system.

Check and balance 

My first point is something you already know, but please allow me to start with the basics and shortly reiterate it. There is a reason why legislators are only meant to create laws and not to involve themselves in the implementation of laws, especially in the allocation of funds and projects. This is called checks-and-balance. Compromise this and accountability processes in the government will significantly weaken, corruption can easily happen.

The capacity of the legislature as well as the executive to ensure accountability in the use of power in this country has been greatly eroded because their relationship founded on checks-and-balance has been compromised. 

Prioritization of needs

Secondly, while the need of your constituencies that you are responding to with the use of your PDAF is valid, there might be other people or areas in the country with worse conditions, who need the assistance more and must therefore be prioritized.

In a country like the Philippines where one-third of its population is poor while its government lacks resources, needs must be prioritized. Pork barrel-type of allocation that is given in lump-sum to ALL Congresspersons dilutes the rational allocation of funds according to prioritized needs or whose constituencies or areas need it most.

Congresspersons only see the need in their locality, but are unaware and may not even be concerned of the needs in other localities, which could be worse. And given immediate political considerations, with local elections happening every three years, their decisions on allocation will most likely be clouded by political considerations.

We have seen in our School-Building Program (SBP) monitoring cases where because of “equal” allocation, there are areas with enough school buildings, but are still given SBP allocation, while there are areas with acute classroom shortage but do not have enough allocation.

If your constituencies are really in need, in a transparent and accountable allocation of resources done by the national bureaucracy, your constituencies should be provided with its needed services and projects. If the executive does not deliver on this, Congress can always use its oversight powers to ensure that the executive exercised its powers accordingly, especially in implementation of laws most critical to responding to the needs of your constituencies whom you represent, such as the General Appropriations Action.

Patron-client relationship

But I think the most important sentiment you shared and the hardest to grapple with for itis a fundamental challenge in our political culture is that majority of Filipinos, majority of your constituencies do not gauge you based on how you perform your functions as a legislator and won’t vote for you unless you “serve” them.

And by service, most Filipino voters mean provision of goods and services – having projects preferably with immediate, tangible benefits and making your presence felt, especially in kasal, binyag, libing (KBL), which also require resources. Turn these services into something personally credited to the politicians and create a relationship of dependency, which is developed over a period of time, and you have a patron-client relationship.

Indeed, in reality, patron-client relationship is perpetuated not only by patrons, but by clients too.  So how will patronage end? When will it end? Who will end it?

If we leave it up to the “clients” to change how they view public service and gauge their Congresspersons, this will require ages. And frankly, I do not think it is fair to put the burden of changing the patronage system on the poor premised on the argument that if majority of the Filipinos won’t change first, then the system will stay the same.

We can do as many political education seminars as we want, and demand or call for the majority of the people to change their views and the way they relate with their representatives, but by and large, the economic condition of the people has a lot to do with this disposition. Alleviating people from poverty would not only take a long time, but more importantly would require that those benefiting from such a situation where there are poor people in need, the patrons, would actually allow poor people to be alleviated from poverty.

So how does this end? I say, we target the patrons. Discipline them and ensure accountability in their exercise of power. It has been established by empirical studies that pork-barelling is the single-most effective source of patronage.

I recommend Yoko Kasuya’s Presidential Bandwagon (2009) as a recent empirical study to review. Pork Barrel is the patrons’ source of funds. If we remove this source, in the process, we weaken the powers of patrons significantly. You clip their ability to use their power to serve their interest and perpetuate themselves and you’ll have a better chance at truly empowering our people, alleviating them from poverty through services and support from the government

Congresspersons, like you, who I wouldn’t consider as patrons (as I believe you are not establishing such a relationship of dependency with your constituencies and who are genuinely providing services to empower your people) would be affected. But this is the reason I said at the onset that the likes of you are the critical allies in this advocacy.

Who will end it? Honest and genuine public servants like you who are in positions of power, supported by concerned citizens and responsible forces in civil society and social movements, who understand that there are systemic changes needed so that honest and genuine public servants will not be flukes, so that islands of good governance will become an archipelago, so that transparency and accountability will not rest on a law or an investigation but will be a common practice.

These concerned citizens are starting to make their voices heard. They are not the majority. That’s true. But this is why fundamental change in the country is needed.

Finally, when will it end? I think we have a golden opportunity now. Because as concerned citizens make their voices heard on this issue, honest and good public servants like you can support these concerned citizens’ call, while being supported by a central government that is trusted by a significant majority of the people and which arguably have reform orientation, which presupposes readiness to support reformers and with openness for structural change.

I still want to believe that the central government can deliver on this. If these concerned citizens, honest public servants and reform-oriented central government officials will be allies in advancing that significant political reform, we might just have a shot at crippling the patronage system to a level that will allow genuine empowerment of the people to happen.

With respect,

_________, Concerned citizen

During this time, when each of those who are in positions of power are called to make a difficult decision to support the massive uproar against the pork barrel systemI remember a conversation I was fortunate to have with Sec. Jesse Robredo.

That was at the height of the Hello Garci scandal. Amidst the effort of the Office of the President (OP) to bribe all those in power to remain silent on the GMA resign-impeachment-oust call, the Naga City government sided with the indignant ordinary Filipinos scandalized by such callous use of the presidential power.

Naga City passed a resolution demanding for the accountability of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, short of calling for her resignation. As a result, OP at that time, through its power of release, withold the release of Naga City’s Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA), pressuring Naga City to take back its position. It was a difficult time for Naga. Though it is not heavily dependent on its IRA, the absence of the IRA definitely deprived Naga City of many services and projects needed by its people.

But Naga City, under the leadership of Sec. Jesse, did not waiver. It maintained its position, tried to make do with its own revenue as it explained to its people why Naga City was siding with the rest of the country to hold the President to account.

Sec. Jesse had this to say, which I try to paraphrase below:

May mga pagkakataong hihingin sa iyo na pumusisyon sa tama. At madalas, mahirap ang desisyon na iyon. Pero naniniwala ako, mahirap man sa ngayon na panindigan ang tama, sa hinaharap aanihin mo iyong magandang kahihinatnan nun.

(There are times when you will be asked to side with what is right. Most of the times, that decision will be difficult. But I believe, though it is difficult to side with the truth now, you will reap its good results in the future.)

Sec. Jesse was a great leader because he knew when it is time to take a strong stand. And often it is when there is a national sense of indignation as the entire country gets awakened to what is wrong in the government and demands for change.

The pork barrel has scandalized the country to a state of indignation. Those in power, especially the legislators, ought to step up and be who they ought to be in times like this: heed the people’s call and take a decisive action to change what is wrong in the system. This time, that change is the abolition of the pork barrel. -Rappler.com

Joy Aceron is Program Director at School of Government-Ateneo de Manila University directing Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) and Government Watch (G-Watch). She lectures at the Ateneo Political Science Department.