The significance of the pork barrel ruling

Joy Aceron

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The decision on the PDAF should be appreciated as the start of even bigger fights ahead

On November 19, the Supreme Court (SC) unanimously decided to declare the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) as unconstitutional.

The scope of the decision covers the following, which is quoted below in verbatim:

a) The entire 2013 PDAF article.

b) All legal provisions of past and present Congressional Pork Barrel Laws, such as the previous PDAF and Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) Articles and the various Congressional Insertions, which authorized legislators – whether individually or collectively organized into committees – to intervene, assume or participate in any of the various post-enactment stages of the budget execution, such as but not limited to the areas of project identification, modification and revision of project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment unrelated to the power of Congressional oversight.

c) All legal provisions of past and present Congressional pork barrel laws such as the previous PDAF and CDF Articles and the various Congressional insertions which confer or conferred personal, lump sum allocations to legislators from which they are able to fund specific projects which they themselves determined.

d) All informal practices of similar import and effect, which the court similarly deems to be acts of grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of discretion.

The above-cited scope is extensive to cover even informal practices, which makes the expected impact of this SC ruling both wide-ranging and deep.

Challenge to the political branches

On the first day of the oral arguments on this case, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen asked the petitioners: “Isn’t it unfair that the only burden in correcting the system is with the court? Shouldn’t we say it’s also with the legislature and executive and we will do our part in correcting it?”

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno provides the background to this question: “We are sensitive to the fact that we are not politicians. There are political solutions. We have to know whether it’s time to step in.”

The respondents to the case represented by the Office of the Solicitor General argued that the SC should let the executive and the legislature resolve the pork issue, stating that: “…judicial solution may inadvertently limit a more progressive solution.”

With the ruling of the SC on the PDAF, we know how this debate has been settled. The SC deemed it necessary to intervene.

The SC decision on the PDAF is the High Court’s challenge to the political branches of the government. The necessity for a judicial action speaks of the failure of the executive and the legislature in providing a political solution that will decisively solve the pork crisis.

The SC decision will surely spawn many opinions and actions, one of which hopefully is that of political society finally shaping up as a response to the SC’s implicit challenge to the political society on its decision on PDAF.

Pork is now prohibited

The SC ruling does not only abolish PDAF, it prohibits pork. It deems illegal any form of congressional intervention in the “post-enactment stages of the budget execution.”

The ruling opted to further define the limits and bounds of how the executive and the legislature should relate in the budget process. Congress’ power is limited to its power over the purse exercised during the budget authorization stage (i.e., the stage when the budget is being deliberated in Congress) and its oversight powers, which broadly means its power to check whether the laws, including the budget law, are executed properly.

With this decision, the system of checks-and-balance is expected to be restored. With Congress now out of the picture of budget implementation, it can perform its oversight power more effectively and credibly. This can be argued as the strengthening of Congress.

Meanwhile, the budget authorization stage can now become a real battleground where the dynamics of specific needs of congressional districts and the national priorities will come into play. Legislators will have to engage the executive here and argue that their proposed items in the budget (supposedly in accordance to their constituencies’ needs) are consistent with the national development plan and must therefore be prioritized. This becomes a good opportunity for the executive to convince the legislators of the merits of its priority legislative agenda.

This decision of the SC on this account can be appreciated as supportive of the strengthening of institutions. The weakness of Philippine institutions is partly because of the fact that they are not well-defined. Many of the institutions are not operationally defined as to how they should be used and applied given the country’s political context. This arguably makes the institutions easily thwarted to the advantage and use of the powerful.

Replacing pork

With the prohibition of pork, the main system that facilitates the relationship between the executive and the legislature is now gone. This relationship is key in development planning and governance.

Both the executive and the legislature know the need for them to cooperate and work out something more substantive in order to fill the gap left behind by the pork system. The executive will have to get Congress to pass the legislative measures critical to the country’s development targets and commitments. Congress, on the other hand, cannot remain non-functional all the time, especially now with many eyes looking at how legislators will cope up without their pork.

The main gap in a pork-less Congress is the mechanism which facilitates the relationship between the executive and the legislature and which supports the legislators in performing their law-making functions.

There are now several emerging solutions to fill this gap.

One is the strengthening of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC). The LEDAC serves as a venue for the executive and the legislature to coordinate on the legislative measures that must be prioritized. Through the LEDAC, the executive informs the legislature of the critical bills that will support the country’s development plan and the legislators would have an idea which bills would be most crucial.

The other is the strengthening of political parties and the development of a party system.

Proponents of this argue that the reason the pork barrel system exists is because the Philippines has an underdeveloped or mal-developed party system. Instead of the parties facilitating the relationship between the executive and the legislature on the basis of issues and programs, the parties are being used as a machinery to distribute pork as a way to perpetuate patronage. Without real parties providing varied programmatic options, there is no mechanism by which legislators are informed, educated and supported on the kind of bills that they should sponsor and support.

A party reform bill currently filed in Congress is expected to support the strengthening of parties and the development of a party system. It sets minimum standards on how genuine political parties should function, providing subsidy for the performance of these functions. It also prohibits political turncoatism, which aims to support the maturity of the electoral exercise.

A new Congress

With the pork out of the picture, legislators will now be forced to focus on performing their main mandate of law-making, oversight and deliberation, if pressure on them will be sustained to such an extent that they will heed.

One obvious pressure on legislators, particularly those who want to be re-elected, is still the need to respond to the demand of their respective constituency. Now, they will have to find a way to be responsive to their constituency within the bounds of their main mandate, having no pork to rely on.

It is most crucial to correct the misconception that legislators will not be able to respond to the immediate needs of their constituents with just their law-making mandate to work around with.

Congress has power over the purse. The budget is a law. Legislators can argue during the budget authorization stage why the needs of their constituencies must be prioritized in the budget. This will enable legislators to respond to their constituents’ needs, while taking into account the development thrust of the government and the need of the rest of the country.

Finally, if pork is not resurrected in any form (thus turning Congress into mainly a law-making body), future congressional elections will likely attract those with capacity for law-making, for research and monitoring (to perform oversight) and for debate and public discourse. This will drastically change the composition of Congress and could give birth to a new legislature resulting in a different dynamics in legislative-making and executive-legislative relationship.

A revolutionary first step

Those who understand the role played by pork in Philippine politics will know how significant is the decision of the Supreme Court on PDAF. But those who understand the flaws of our political system will also understand that a piece of document can easily be undermined by powerful forces, who will be affected by what that piece of document contains.

Pork has been the main source of patronage in the country that perpetuates the rule of political monopolies. The forces that rely on pork for their power will not take the changes that are about to happen sitting down. If not through direct confrontation, there will be other means through which the old order will fight for survival.

The SC decision is a tool that can pave the way for real changes in governance and politics in the country. But it is not in any way sufficient to realize the changes that the broad anti-pork advocacy wants to see.

The broad anti-pork advocacy, after all, wants to see integrity back in the political system, for the culture of transparency and accountability to be nurtured and sustained at all levels of governance, and for public office truly becoming a public trust. The broad anti-pork advocacy aims to end patronage politics, which perpetuates disempowerment and dependency of the masses under the rule of a few.

Hence, while the SC decision on the PDAF is a victory that the anti-pork advocates can claim and celebrate about, it should also be appreciated as the start of even bigger fights ahead that can truly spell the difference in the lives of ordinary Filipinos.

Joy Aceron is Program Director in Ateneo School of Government directing Government Watch (G-Watch) and Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) programs.

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