An open letter to President Noy: Abolish pork, seriously.

Brian Paul Giron
Let me be clear about my position on the issue: pork, Mr. President, IS inherently bad and you are NOT abolishing it

Dear Mr. President,


I want to begin by saying that this was written in earnest. So much of the reaction to the PDAF scandal has been characterized by bitterness, spite, and rage so that our arguments and debates have become sarcastic, bitter and often downright angry.


I have to admit that I have not been immune to this tendency toward snark although I must also admit that this is probably because I am not a pleasant person. But I have seen some of the gentlest, kindest, most patient people lose their cool over this issue and that has become cause for concern of late.


Can you blame them, Mr. President? Many of the indignant are taxpayers who can barely afford to pay taxes. They are taunted by their pay slips twice a month; and they know exactly how much of their hard-earned money is taken from them.


I am angry.


But I do know that it is surprisingly easy to convince yourself that your ideas are the best; or even the only acceptable solutions to our problems. And I do know as well that it is even easier to forget that we do not have a monopoly over good intentions or love for this country.


Hence, this letter in which I will try to outline why pork is bad, why it is a crucial obstacle to democratization, and why this opportunity to take a step in the right direction will not happen again soon.


Pork is not just about corruption


I think that the most common source of confusion on the issue is the definition of pork itself. Unfortunately, your administration has contributed to this confusion by equating the PDAF with pork as if they are the same and that the abolition of the PDAF means the abolition of all pork.


To make things even more confusing, you hedged on the issue too by saying that the pork barrel system is not inherently bad (but you are abolishing it anyway?).


Well you can’t have your pork and eat it too, sir.


Let me be clear about my position on the issue: pork, Mr. President, IS inherently bad and you are NOT abolishing it.


I think the definitional confusion lies in the fact that we tend to focus on the outrage brought about by the PDAF scandal. Appropriately, your administration’s response has been to dwell on the corruption dimension of the pork barrel.


But corruption, while the most outrageous, is not the only thing bad about the PDAF. Here I will introduce the definition of the pork barrel that I feel we should be discussing:


A pork barrel system is one wherein legislators divert public funds to local projects for the sake of gaining political capital.


You may not agree on the definition, Mr. President, but it hardly matters because the reality reflects this definition and we are still able to properly argue the merit and shortfalls of allowing legislators the use of public funds as conduits for political capital because that is an undeniable e and concrete implication of the pork barrel system.


So it isn’t really about corruption alone, or oversight alone, or increasing transparency, or even ensuring impact from the funds being channeled—we must also tackle the issue of whether or not legislators should be able to divert public funds to their pet projects whether or not these projects are worthy, beneficial, or laudable.


Legislators have no business diverting public funds


The question then is—should lawmakers have the ability to divert public funds for development projects?


I say no. And pork is not abolished for as long as there are ways for legislators to get their pet projects funded by taxpayer money. Even assuming you can clean the system up, I do not think that our legislators should be given ANY means of procuring funds for their projects.


I can think of four reasons as I write this:


First, it undermines our system of checks and balances and complicates an already complex system to the detriment of transparency. As I understand it, the executive branch should determine and direct the allocation of public funds and the legislature should analyze, scrutinize and eventually approve the proposed budget.


That alone is already full of opportunities for patronage and various forms of quid pro quo politics. But when you allow legislators the option to handle the direction of funds themselves you create an even messier system that makes collusion a necessary reality.


Second (and as a consequence of the first), our politics have become less about ideas and their merit and more about patronage. Let’s not kid ourselves that collusion between legislators–in allowing each other the use of public funds as the basic currency of politics–hasn’t corrupted our political system.


Legislators don’t get elected on the basis of whether or not they make good laws—they get elected, re-elected, and remembered for the projects they use their pork barrel on. As a result, legislators run on patronage rather than a platform of ideologies for lawmaking.


Our weak political parties, our personality politics, our ignorance about the roles of our officials and inability to select the better ones all naturally stem from this.


Third, our legislators have proven themselves empirically untrustworthy. 


Fourth, contrary to a popular fallacy that is often cited, our congressmen and senators are not in the best position to determine where public fund should be spent—they are not even in the best position to know where fund should be spent in their constituent districts.


A congressman can almost certainly find a project to channel funds to but the process for determining the merit of spending money on this project or that should be one that takes into account the entirety of needs assessed in relation to each other.


This sort of assessment is best left to local government units that should aggregate the needs of their constituents rather than a congressman who arbitrarily picks his favorite charity and pours money on it. Many of these congressmen aren’t even in touch with their so-called constituents anymore.


In summary, pork is bad because: it undermines the system of checks and balances we put in place and encourages collusion and patronage politics instead; it perpetuates a system based on patronage and personality politics that communicates a twisted notion of what a legislator should be and how he should perform his duty; it gives more discretion and puts money in the hands of predominantly corrupt people; and it is not the best system for resource allocation.


There is opportunity for meaningful change here


At the end of the day, Mr. President, I am writing because I know the anger will subside.  Of course, you will probably go after a few heads and offer them to appease our anger and our current predisposition toward lynching but I wanted to bring up a few ideas before you choose to preserve the system that you seem so enamored with.


Abolishing the pork barrel is the “tuwid na daan.” The constitutionality of pork has been questioned before and rightfully so. It is an aberration necessitated by our legislators’ need of political currency with their constituents and even when “used right” it creates issues of patronage and misinformation so that constituents and voters are not served well in both the bigger picture and the long run.


Our people aren’t ignorant, Mr. President, but many of them are presented with false choices. Why not believe in their ability to participate in politics meaningfully and be our partners in turning this country around?


Why not take their side against the false choices they elected and move toward a system that values good ideas, merit, and platforms over patronage and pork?


Better yet, why not begin here by listening to the people’s call for the abolition of all pork?


What’s wrong with democracy, Mr. President? –

Brian Paul A. Giron is an instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University Department of History.