PNoy should heed his ancestor and abolish pork

Eric Gutierrez
Malacañang should simply tell legislators, the party's over, full stop

“The power of the purse belongs to Congress, which is not allowed to increase the appropriations  recommended by the President, although that rule is often violated as congressmen scramble to increase budget items for so-called pork barrel funds.” 

This was from a 1925 speech given by Sen Juan Sumulong, then the minority floor leader and leader of the opposition. Juan Sumulong’s daughter Demetria was married to Don Pepe Cojuangco; Demetria and Don Pepe were the parents of Cory Aquino. 

So it was President Benigno Aquino III’s great maternal grandfather who already said back in 1925 that the pork barrel was a violation of the rule on the power of the purse. The President should listen to his ancestor.

Pork barrel spending in the Philippines traces its history back to 1907, when the Philippine Assembly was elected. By 1911, the Filipino-dominated Philippine Assembly led by Sergio Osmeña (what was the Lower House then) was locked with the American-dominated Philippine Commission (what was then the Upper House). The Filipino politicians wanted increased powers over Cabinet appointments and the budget (including salaries of civil servants). There was a government crisis that year because the budget was not passed as a resulf of that conflict. 

But eventually the Filipino politicians won and got their way, as the American governor-general Malcolm Forbes relented. The assemblymen captured complete power over the purse. Judge Charles E. Elliot, an American member of the Philippine Commission said that from then on, “legislation became largely a matter of private engagement between the governor-general and the speaker (of the Assembly).” Thus this pork barrel scam has been going on for over a century now.   

Today, Malacañang wrong-foots itself on the pork barrel issue. It continually justifies that “pork” is a necessary tool for governance, and has now even resorted to spin that it will be “abolished.”  Especially after the August 26 protests, Malacañang should now seize the moment to argue for far-reaching reforms. 

PDAF as an anomaly 

Legislators do not have the “right” to identify how parts of the public purse ought to be spent. Their role is only to review and monitor, not propose budget spending. This is the spirit behind that explicit text in the Constitution stating, “Congress may not increase the appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of government.”

In theory therefore, the executive proposes, and the legislature reduces what they see as excess fat, also known as “pork.” But in practice, the executive proposes, the legislature conspires, and “pork” is not only legalized, it is also bloated. 

True, “pork” can and has been used for good purposes. But that doesn’t address the original sin that pork’s legalized existence is a fundamental corruption of the principle of checks and balances. Under this principle, guardians of the purse should not be spenders of that purse.

The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) provides the legal sleight-of-hand, and overextends the power of legislators over the budget. It is supposed to enhance collaboration and rationalize spending, but what it has done more is to simply legalize bantay-salakay. It creates the opportunities for abuse.  

So rather than justify “pork,” Malacañang could simply tell legislators that the party’s over, full stop. Congress could not anymore “propose,” or “insert,” items of spending at their members’ individual discretion. But they could continue reviewing and monitoring public spending, making sure that the public gets value for money for the taxes they pay. 

Porto Alegre’s example

Malacañang could also well argue that it is time to improve the current system of representation with more direct participation. In most representative systems, it is so easy to “just let elected officials decide.”

Public control over these elected officials is then exercised only during elections, if it has not yet been manipulated by clever spin. Direct participation expands the options for involvement by citizens, and there are plenty of models to learn from.

In 2002 I had the chance to observe one of the most documented models of participatory budgeting in the world – the experience of the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. 

Proponents described participatory budgeting as an antidote to various poisons, such as “state capture” – or when private vested interests are redefined and confused as the public good. Though state capture may be a contested concept, it is easily detected in the Philippines, as exemplified by that four-letter word PDAF, and countless others, such as the Malampaya Fund, the C5 diversion, and so on. Some are more brazen than others.

Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting started as simple public consultations over the city’s investment decisions. Its top officials were aware that certain investments can increase social differences and divide society, so they asked the public how the city government could put the taxes into better use. This then led to the publication of information that was necessary for citizens to make informed choices. City agencies were told to open up accounts and be more transparent; billboards with charts and figures about spending were posted to keep the public aware of city projects and programs; and more intelligent debate ensued. 

Over time, a system for accrediting participants and documenting processes developed to guarantee that what the public supported was what legislators passed as the appropriations law. What was essential, Porto Alegre officials argue, was the creation of a “non-state public sphere” – a space which is public but not controlled by government, where there is constant interaction between citizens and the institutions of government. 

The Philippines has also attempted to develop its own model, but it appears to be stillborn. These are the development councils, from the barangay level up to the National Economic and Development Authority, which in theory should be the source of what spending priorities and investment decisions should be. It is not anymore clear if development councils are still alive, and much less is known whether their recommendations actually found their way into the national budget.

Demand and supply

Whatever the case, this is something Malacañang could investigate and explore, rather than continue lame-duck excuses and worries that government scholars will be punished or much-needed infrastructure projects will be wasted if PDAF was to be abolished.  

The bottom line is that an agreement should be reached on how to manage the demand and supply of “pork.” If supply was simply switched off, “pork” would just re-emerge in another form, because there will always be demand to spend the public purse in particular ways. 

So what Malacañang can do is to ensure that the public more than individual politicians will be the source of demand. Then it can strengthen and further develop that “non-state public sphere,” by responding directly and consistently in the social media. 

Finally, if it wants to make sure that supply is proper and orderly, simply file charges unsparingly against those who have abused it. Use the golden opportunity of the August 26 protests to finally impose discipline on legislators scrambling over the public purse. – Rappler.com

 

Now based in London, the author wrote a book on conflicts of interests in Congress, “The Ties That Bind: A Guide to Family, Business and Other Interests in the Ninth House of Representatives,” published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and Institute for Popular Democracy in 1994, and a the “Public Purse” chapter in a 1998 PCIJ book titled “Pork and Other Perks: Corruption and Governance in the Philippines.” 

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