What to watch in the 2014 reformed pork

Congress, on September 11, announced that it has come to an agreement in the committee level to realign their P25.2 billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to six (6) line agencies.

The P25.2 billion will be realigned as follows: Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will get 35% or P8.82 billion; the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) will get 10% or P2.52 billion; the Department of Education (DepEd) will get 5% or P1.26 billion; and Department of Health (DOH) will get 15%.

The mere fact that the 25.2 billion peso-PDAF is still being referred to as a separate budget item to be lodged on national government agencies selected by Congress tells us that there is still pork. Only this time, the P25.2 billion is a lump-sum earmarked for the entire Congress, which the legislators will divide among themselves based on their proposals to be reviewed and approved by the executive.

This is not exactly the envisioned pork abolition by advocates. For one, there shouldn't be that P25.2 billion earmarked for Congress. If legislators (invoking their power to recommend during the budget authorization stage) wants to argue for an allocation in their locality, they can do so in reference to the entire budget by making a case as to why the need of their locality should be prioritized over other needs. Deliberations on how an earmarked allocation for Congress is divided is deliberating on how to divide pork.

Advocates of pro-abolition should continue to push for the total abolition of pork. But the eventuality that the reformed pork set-up is approved and carried out (and it looks like it) needs some consideration and preparation if only to avoid the P25.2 billion meeting the same fate as the P10 billion in the Napoles scam.

Below are five areas to watch in the new set-up to make the reformed pork less fatty:

1. Congress shall only recommend.

This means the executive can and will accept or reject the recommendation of the any legislator based on an objective set of criteria.

Solons will most likely recommend based on their parochial need and/or partisan political interest, but it should be checked and balanced by national government agencies based on national need.

Remember that one of the aims of abolishing pork is to advance a rational allocation of resources by the government. Pork is deemed irrational and parochial, since it is allocated equally to all regardless of need.

That can be addressed, partially at least, by ensuring that the executive can effectively screen the recommendations of the members of Congress, at the same time, ensuring that the executive's basis of screening will be as objective as possible.

2. Recommendations shall be done during the budget authorization stage in the plenary.

The power of the purse is in the hands of the legislature. This means during the budget authorization stage, legislators can recommend, raise objection on or support the budget proposal put forward by the executive.

But it should stop there. Congress' recommendations should only be execised within the bounds of the budget authorization stage. Otherwise, that is no longer an exercise of the power of the purse, but an exercise of a "quasi-executive" function, which is one of the main problems in the current set up of the pork barrel system.

Again, pork abolition means bringing back the check and balance relationship between Congress and the executive. This can somehow be achieved, given the reformed set up, if it is ensured that Congress and the exective alike exercise their powers within its prescribed domain.

3. The implementation stage, particularly the procurement process, shall be hands-off from the legislators.

This means, once approved, the proposal of any legislator should be treated like any other service provided and/ or project implemented by the agency. It should not be in any way attributable to the senator or representative.

The pork perpetuates patronage because its allocation and utilization is attributable to individual legislators. Attribution should be checked if we want the reform system to also address patronage.

Most crucial is to ensure that no member of Congress can have any hand in choosing contractors, which (based on several monitoring done by watchdogs) is common not only in PDAF projects but in other projects implemented in the legislators' locality.

There shouldn't be any required consultation with and especially approval or concurrence by any congressman before the project is implemented or services is provided. Again, this is no longer the domain of Congress.

Based on the monitoring done by watchdogs, this is how legislators put pressure on the bureaucracy, resulting to members of Congress ultimately determining where the project will be implemented or who will be the beneficiaries of the projects and services. Given the weakness of the bureacracy vis-a-vis the legislature, this is a likely scenario that should be mitigated.

4. In the exercise of the Congress' oversight powers, its members shall look at the implementation of the budget by the executive (if they deem this necesary) in a holistic sense—how the agency is utilizing its entire budget according to its mandate and not overseeing only the use of the P25.2 billion, particularly their recommendation.

Congress holds oversight powers over the executive, including the executive's execution of the budget. Congress can check how the P 25.2 billion is executed, but to focus only on that and pertaining only to projects and services allocated in a representative's locality will lead us to the same problem where accountability is compromised by partisan political interests or parochial concerns.

It is time to also check how Congress exercises its oversight powers and whether such is exercised to enable it to perform its main mandate, which is to legislate.

5. But first, Congress should be made to explain its proposed allocation of the P25.2 billion.

Why allocate 35% in DPWH if the loudest justification given by Congress in the need to still have that earmarked allocation in the 2014 budget is to provide "services" to their constituencies, scholarship and medical assistance as the two specific services most commonly identified?

Is there not enough allocation in DPWH already?

Incidentally Government Watch (G-Watch) of the Ateneo School of Government (which I am program director) has been monitoring school-building projects (SBPs) implemented by both DPWH and DepEd since 2005.

G-Watch has consistently noted in its monitoring results that DPWH's SBPs are more expensive that the SBP implemented by DepEd.

G-Watch has also consistently documented in the past (before the current DPWH leadership) the higher vulnerability of DPWH to intervention by legislators.

The intervention of legislators in the SBP implementation, based on the past monitoring of G-Watch, has caused delays in school building construction and led to allocation of SBPs to schools with no acute classroom shortage.

Although G-Watch has no sufficient data to say that the absorptive capacity of DPWH is questionnable, there is also no proof yet provided by Congress to convince the public that its reason for allocating the biggest chunk of the P25.2 billion to DPWH is admissible.

So why public works and not basic education or health services? Congress will have to make better justification for this.

The new set-up signals a highly dynamic environment with a likely tug-of-war between and among forces in the budget process, including the civil society and citizens, who want the pork abolished. How the forces play their part will determine if the pork in the 2014 will be the same, will be less fatty or worse.

Joy Aceron is Program Director of Ateneo School of Government directing Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) and Government Watch (G-Watch). G-Watch is a program of ASoG since 2000 that enables constructive engagement between civil society and government in monitoring procurement and delivery of basic services in national government agencies and local government units.