Scrapping the pork: Just smoke and mirrors

Benjamin E. Diokno
Aquino can take the bold move: discontinue the pork barrel system and implement the other real budget reforms

Former Budget Secretary Benjamin DioknoGrudgingly, President Benigno Aquino III decided to scrap the P25.2 billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), popularly known as “the pork.” But the promised alternative mechanism remains shapeless and fuzzy.

My guess is that the pork will remain. The PDAF will be gone but the entire P25.2 billion will be scattered In the P2.3-trillion budget. The scrapping of the pork barrel is just smoke and mirrors.

Operationally, this is how the alternative mechanism will look like. Each senator will be asked to submit to Senate President Franklin Drilon, while each congressman will be asked to do the same to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, a list of projects equivalent to their allocation under the existing pork barrel system — P200 million for senators and P70 million for each representative.

The advantage of the new system is that congressional pork will be transparent and focused. “Soft” projects will be gone, and each legislator will be forced to reveal early the the projects that will be funded by their pork.

This advantage may be rendered ineffective, however, by the department secretaries’ power to realign.

As a result, what is shown In the now voluminous General Appropriations Act (GAA) is not necessarily what is being funded. For citizens’ organizations that would like to monitor the use of the funds, this is a nightmare. Try shooting a moving target.

While more open, there is no guarantee that the programs and projects identified by the legislator are superior to projects identified by the Executive Department or through the Regional Development Councils.

There is another wrinkle in the new system. While the individual legislator-sponsored projects are itemized in the GAA, there is no guarantee that the President will release the funds to finance the budget. What the public sees is not necessarily what will get funded.

True, this problem exists under both the present and the new budget systems. The President can slice and dice the Congress-approved budget, reshape it, and then release funds according to the altered form of the budget. It has been like this during the martial law years, and after democracy was restored after more than 25 years, it remains to be so.

BIC: Real game changer

An inescapable conclusion is that the proposed reform of the pork-barrel system is skin-deep. If President Aquino prefers a more serious, broader and long-lasting reform, a real game-changer, he should agree to endorse and work for the approval of the Budget Impoundment Control (BIC) bill. The BIC Act will oblige the President to release the budget in accordance with GAA.

If due to changed economic condition, the President prefers to impound (meaning not release) part of the GAA, then he will required by the BIC law to seek congressional approval. This will revive the congressional power of the purse which is practically non-existent all these years. This will strengthen political institutions. And it will give real meaning to one-fund concept and the checks-and-balance provision enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

It is reasonable to assume that the Filipino people voted for President Aquino because they want real change, and they want a major break from his corrupt and opaque predecessor. They see in him the possibility of an open and corruption-free administration.

But halfway through his presidency,  a rising number of his former supporters has become disappointed and disenchanted.

Doubts about Mr. Aquino’s seriousness about his anti-corruption campaign were first raised when he pussyfooted on the Freedom of Information (FOI) measure. He strongly supported the FOI during the presidential campaign;  he avoided it like a plague after he was sworn in as president three years ago. How can one who is committed to an open government be opposed to the FOI act?

With the congressional pork scrapped, there is an increasing pressure for the President to give up his own pork — both those in the budget and off-budget. He should govern by example.

I’m not talking of the Calamity Fund and the Contingent Fund in the national budget. I agree that there are justifications, say need for flexibility, for these funds.

But there are some funds that may be less aggregated, such as the School Building Fund, the e-government Fund, and other lump sums in the budgets of say the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Agriculture, and Department of Interior and Local Government. These maybe considered ‘presidential pork.’

The President’s pork

In a sense, one can make a case that the entire President’s budget, especially if Congress approved it with little alterations,  is the President’s pork.

Under the present system, which is a carryover of the martial law years, the President can slice and dice the budget, arbitrarily extract ‘savings’ from any or all executive departments, reshape it anyway he wants, and then release the funds in accordance with the altered budget.

Additionally, there are large chunks of “off-budget” funds that the President controls totally since they do not require congressional approval. They are allocated and disbursed by unelected officials. These funds are the Malampaya Fund (more than P100 billion), the PAGCOR Presidential Social Fund (approximately P25 billion annually and rising) and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office Charity Fund.

The legal bases for the existence and use of these off-budget presidential pork were of martial law vintage.

Assuming that President Aquino has been upright, frugal, and open in the use of these “off-budget” funds, there is no guarantee that those who will succeed him will be equally upright and clean. This justifies the need to institutionalize the integration of these funds into the National Treasury and that their use should undergo the same budgetary review just like any other fund.

Moreover, such move will be consistent with the best practices in the world — the one-fund concept. It is also consistent with the constitutional desire to give Congress the power to authorize the appropriate use of funds, regardless of source, collected by the government.

Some apologists would insist that it is better to trust Mr. Aquino than the members of Congress. But that’s a cop-out, and it assumes that Mr. Aquino would be around forever. That’s a big assumption, which is why reforms of the budget process have to be institutionalized while Mr. Aquino is fully in control.

This puts President Aquino III at a crossroads.

He can sit idly by, muddle through, and pass on the corrupt, dysfunctional political system to his successor. Or he can take the bold move: discontinue the pork barrel system and implement the other real budget reforms. For choosing the former, the Filipino people will forever condemn him; for choosing the latter, a grateful people will forever revere him. –


Dr. Diokno is Professor of Economics at the University of the Philippines and former Secretary of Budget and Management. 

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