Why rationalize bad practice? Abolish pork barrel

Carmel V. Abao

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The pork barrel system must be abolished, not just reformed. Otherwise, I demand a corruption rebate.

The wheels of justice have started to turn. An arrest warrant has been issued against Janet Lim-Napoles and her brother. While Napoles and her ilk have to be held accountable for the scam, we should not lose our sight on the bigger, more fundamental problem: how to stop our political system from churning out more Napoleses.     

That the pork barrel is a source of corruption is an “open secret.” Many have come to refer to “cuts” or “kickbacks” from pork as “SOP” or standard operating procedure. It is public awareness of this open secret that is now fueling public disgust: people know that their hard-earned taxpayers’ money is repeatedly being squandered by elected officials.  

Everyone knows about the roads that lead to nowhere, the funds for fertilizer that were distributed to local governments of non-agricultural highly urbanized cities, the daycare centers without toilets, the substandard roads and bridges, and many others. The list of “secrets” is very long and quite old. The Napoles scam could simply be the straw that will finally break the camel’s back.  

People are not surprised; they’re angry and frustrated. Paulit-ulit na lang, kailan ba ito titigil? 

It is thus alarming and saddening that PNoy’s earliest response to the scam was simply an off-the-cuff sarcastic remark.  He first said that “the fertilizer fund scam was a bigger scam,” obviously insinuating that the Arroyo administration under which that scam unfolded was more fertile ground for corruption.   

READ: Pork abolition up to Congress

Arroyo, though, did not have a “daang matuwid” or an anti-corruption campaign. It was PNoy himself that set this bar. Based on this alone, his initial response can be deemed highly inappropriate. Even a local chief executive knows that the ever-reliable “this-is-just-an-inherited-problem” line has its limits. 

The President’s sarcasm is not the greatest cause for alarm, though, because that could just be a communication faux pas that can be easily repaired. It is the President’s emerging policy preference for “reforming” the pork barrel system — rather than abolishing it — that should be contested.  

In the words of Budget Secretary Butch Abad,  “The lawmakers who used their pork barrel prudently and well should not be punished for possible infractions committed by some.” In 2013, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or pork barrel, stood at P24.7B. For 2014, the proposed allocation is P25.2 B. Each member of the House of Representatives will get P70 M while each senator will receive P200 M.  

Malacañang thus is not keen on abolishing the pork but only on improving safeguards to eliminate pork-related corruption.

The Department of Budget and Management is said to be actively working on this matter. The House of Representatives is also not for pork elimination. Marikina Rep Miro Quimbo, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been quoted as saying that they are now discussing a number of proposals regarding additional safeguards in the pork barrel system. These proposals include giving the social welfare department the task of accrediting NGO-beneficiaries and setting a cap on the amount of pork barrel projects that will be implemented by the LGUs. 

But what is the point of improving an inherently anomalous and corrupting practice? Why rationalize bad practice?  

Abolish the system

To my mind, keeping (nay, increasing) the pork barrel – given the Napoles scam — is tantamount to rewarding bad behavior. It serves no purpose other than keeping the open secret alive and strengthening the norm of calling corruption any other name but. 

Reforming the pork is not the answer. It is self-defeating to enhance something that is intrinsically undesirable and unnecessary. 

Abolishing the pork is the reform that’s needed.  

This reform may not eliminate corruption entirely but it will at least help develop a political culture where money ceases to be the thing that matters the most in policymaking and where a spade is called a spade.  

Public spending for development is necessary. It has to be made clear that the PDAF as a development fund allocation is not the problem. It is the pork barrel system or the institutional arrangement of having legislators administer the PDAF that is the problem.  

Below are the reasons why I think this system is inherently anomalous. I also argue that abolishing the pork is not only necessary and desirable, it is also feasible. 

Distorting the presidential system 

Under a presidential system of government, the executive and legislative branches are co-equal because they hold distinct but equally prodigious powers. The “power of the sword” belongs solely to the executive while the “power of the purse” belongs solely to the legislature.  

The budget prepared by the Executive – including the PDAF — is a policy proposal on public spending that comes into force only upon the approval of the Legislative branch. The budget thus is not an administrative matter but a policy matter. Therefore the budget allocation process is not an administrative process but a political one. Moreover, the legislature holds oversight powers over the implementation of the budget by the Executive branch.  

The pork barrel system upsets the power-separation arrangement and distorts the presidential system in at least 3 ways.   

First, the power of the purse belongs to Congress as an institution. It does not belong to its members. What this power means is that only Congress can decide how public money is to be allocated. It does not, in any way, include giving House Representatives members and senators the authority to use public money for purposes other than lawmaking.

Second, the pork barrel system undermines the independence of both the Executive and Legislative branches because it promotes collusion and bends the principle of power separation. In this system, the Executive practically offers the Legislature money by way of the inclusion of the PDAF in its proposed budget. This offer itself speaks volumes because both branches very well know that administering development projects is outside the Legislature’s mandate. The Legislature’s acceptance of said offer by way of approving the inclusion of the PDAF in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) cements the collusion.  

Third, the pork barrel system creates a conflict-of-interest situation and compromises the oversight function of Congress. Oversight entails impartial and objective scrutiny of administrative performance. Obviously, Congress cannot exercise oversight on itself. There is something intrinsically wrong with a Congress approving allocation/giving money to itself for work that it is not mandated to perform. This practice might even be illegal under the 1987 Constitution which is very categorical on the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. 

Vicious cycle of patronage, weak parties 

It has been argued that the pork barrel must stay because it is “for the good of the people,” i.e.,  it is good especially for far-flung local communities in dire need of development funds and which, for some reason or another, have not been reached by either their local governments or by the national government.

Only the politically naïve will take this argument as true.   

Pork barrel is not for development but for political alliance building. It is one way by which the President — or any president for that matter — generates majority legislative support.  This kind of support generation becomes necessary especially when the President has to rein in on recalcitrant legislators.

When the ties that bind the executive and the legislative involve money rather than an agenda or a platform, alliance building transforms into patronage politics.   

The name of the game then becomes one of wheeling-dealing: pork in exchange of legislative support.  This is highly evident in at least two instances: (i) when legislators shift to the camp of the winning President even when they were staunch critics of this President in the previous dispensation, and (ii) when the release of the pork of non-supportive legislators is withheld or delayed by the executive; usually this is used as a bargaining chip when there is intense political or policy contestation. 

This patronage system cascades all the way down to the local communities and eventually to the individual voter. The legislator, after all, has the discretion to select where the pork will go.  

Needless to say, the pork goes to supporters and only to supporters or potential supporters. The supporters, meanwhile, continue to vote/re-elect the legislator on the basis of sustained receipt of the pork. Again, money considerations rather than common political ideas come into play in the relationship between the legislator and his/her “constituency.”

The pork barrel, too, serves as a disincentive for local development planning. Why would a mayor want to take development planning seriously when a lawmaker can step into the process anytime and say she/he wants a water pump here or a farm-to-market road there?  

Pork-based alliance building has become widespread and sustained primarily because there are no real political parties that could serve as the structural mechanism for building political alliances. Many presidents, senators and congresspersons win not on the basis of a solid political base or faithful following often organized through a party, rather, through a hodge-podge of tentative supporters gathered through various ways (including patronage).  Those who win on the basis of platform or ideology are the exception rather than the rule. 

The pork barrel arrangement perpetuates the weak party system because it takes out the necessity of legislative voting based on platform or party lines. Only the pork is necessary in the political equation. The system thus renders political parties irrelevant. And so, the vicious cycle of patronage continues. 

Inherently corrupting

The pork barrel system is inherently corrupting because it makes money matter the most in political exercises where ideas are supposed to be the main if not sole consideration. 

Moreover, the system is inherently non-transparent. This is because pork allocation is fundamentally discretionary — the legislator chooses who to give it to and what projects to undertake. Institutionalization of monitoring mechanisms can be very difficult given this level of discretion (read: individual freedom). 

The system also creates another layer of “bureaucracy” and this is where wheeler-dealers come in. Usually, public funds are disbursed through the national government agencies or the local government units. It is national agency or LGU personnel who  deal with contractors who have to go through bidding processes.  

Under the pork barrel system, the contractors now have to deal as well with legislators. The legislators meanwhile deploy personnel (“operators” or “brokers”) to deal with contractors and implementing government agencies. The sheer number of personnel and the disparate nature of processes involved (i.e, from selection to bidding to fund release and implementation) suggest the impossibility of careful appraisal and auditing of each and every PDAF project.  

The term “pork” is indeed most appropriate. In this system, it is possible for the public to see the development projects, perhaps even the receipts of financial transactions but it is not possible to see who exactly does what or how exactly things are done. In other words, the public sees only the surface and not the inner workings of the system.  

Pork is fat and fat works exactly in the same manner. One can see the “excess” (bulging skin, love handles, bloated stomachs) but the real fat, the fatty tissues – those are hidden inside the body. 

Possible to remove pork now

The removal of the pork requires a simple yet radical political act: non-inclusion of pork in the national budget. This means scrapping the PDAF as a separate or special fund and reallocating it to the more regular budget items.  

For the 2014 budget proposal, this means scrapping the PDAF as a budget item and spreading the 25.2M to the budgets of regular agencies or executive projects that are severely underfunded. By doing this, government will hit two birds with one stone: eliminate an intrinsically anomalous practice and retain badly needed funds for development. The budget process thus will now necessitate a debate on “what” rather than “who” should be funded.  

The fear that such abolition will marginalize constituencies that badly need the PDAF has no basis. 

In the first place, the Napoles scam already tells us that the funds do not often reach the desired constituencies but simply end up in personal pockets. Lawmakers  can still lead their constituencies to the right direction given their participation in the budget process and knowledge of budget allocations. 

The real risk in pork abolition is not the displacement of development project beneficiaries but the displacement of power holders whose interests have become well-entrenched in the government machinery and in society primarily through patronage. It could also mean the weakening of executive-legislative alliance building.  

PNoy is likely to experience more difficulty in generating legislative support once the pork this abolished. To me, this hardship seems a small cost to pay to clean up and transform a corrupt, dysfunctional system. 

Besides, PNoy might be the best President to do this: he continues to hold very high approval ratings (which will of course influence the calculations of legislators), and, there is that political moment,  the Napoles moment. More importantly, if PNoy does this, he will be recorded in Philippine history as the President who dared to abolish the pork barrel system.  

The great political thinker Plato once asserted that justice is not simply about giving a “man” (pardon the gender bias-language – Plato really meant just men) his due for it would be unjust, for example, to give a madman a weapon just because it is his weapon. For Plato, the just society was not simply the “lawful” society. Justice should also be found in the political structures of society and for Plato, these structures must include a clear division of tasks, the harmonious exchange of services and the adequate satisfaction of societal needs.      

If Plato were around today, he would thus probably say this: By all means, crucify yet another plunderer. But that will not be enough to achieve justice. 

My political science students in one class, meanwhile, conducted a mock vote: 27 voted for the abolition of the pork and one abstained. The latter’s abstention turned out to be satirical: “Ma’am, pretend that I am a congressman’s son — why would I want to abolish the pork?  It pays for my education.”

Another class, this time composed mostly of business management students, raised the concern of the impact of the scam on the already-negative perception of the international community on the level of corruption in the country. 

As for me — taking off my academic hat now and speaking as an ordinary citizen and faithful taxpayer living off a university teacher’s salary — this is what I ultimately want to say:  

Prosecute Napoles and her cohorts and coddlers (from both the private and public sectors).

Abolish the pork barrel system. 

Otherwise, I demand a corruption rebate.  I want my money back.  I could use the cash to pay (ridiculously high) electricity bills. – Rappler.com


Carmel Abao teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University


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