A hard look at the pork barrel

The pork barrel system of allocating public funds to benefit a local constituency is a feature of politics we borrowed from the United States. Under this system, elected representatives are given the opportunity to insert allocations for their pet projects in the spending program of the national government. Any expenditure not explicitly recommended by the president in the national budget is thus, in theory, part of the pork barrel.

At first blush, there appears nothing fundamentally wrong about this system, especially where one is dealing with a federal government that has its own priorities. In practice, however, it tends to contradict the whole logic of rational budgeting. Instead of subjecting congressional insertions to careful scrutiny or debate, legislators find it easier to allow everybody to feed from the pork barrel. In the process, some get more than the others, depending upon how close they are to the appropriations committee.

As chief executive, the President has the power to veto any expenditure item that he does not agree with. A few American presidents do this, particularly when a congressional insertion entails having to reallocate a huge chunk of the national budget. Most presidents, as a rule, avoid antagonizing Congress and risking failure to pass the budget. They prefer to accommodate the political needs of legislators by reserving a certain portion of the national appropriations measure for their projects. In return, astute presidents expect the priorities laid down in the national budget to remain basically untouched.

This quid pro quo remains a feature of modern politics, as shown by the menu of compromises that have had to be negotiated in recent debates over the US federal budget. Deadlock lurked at every point, so much so that reasonable heads from the two major parties have had to come together repeatedly to break the intransigence within their respective parties.  In recent days, John McCain, President Barack Obama’s principal rival for the presidency in 2008, played the unlikely role of an Obama stalwart by softening the resistance of his own Republican colleagues in order to help his erstwhile opponent get his budget through.

McCain’s own agenda is to prevent the defense budget from being cut.

Since he can count on friendly majorities in both chambers of Congress, President Aquino faces no such problems. But, this does not mean that he can treat his allies any way he chooses. He knows the realities. He knows he won’t be able to govern unless he takes care of the politics. So, while he has the option to remove the pork barrel portion from the budget, he has to be mindful of the need to marshal steady political support for his agenda in the remaining half of his term.

We don’t expect P-Noy to take the initiative to abolish the pork barrel. Still, it is imperative that we keep the pressure on for the investigation of pork barrel misuse and its eventual elimination. At the same time, we await the promulgation of the safeguards that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad promised in a recent interview. He and the President, who were both members of Congress for many years, ought to know what kind of controls will work to minimize corruption in the utilization of the pork barrel.

It is important to stay focused on the key issues. I don’t think that the Filipino electorate is against the idea of giving legislators the prerogative to identify infrastructure and social services projects that are meant primarily for their districts and constituents.  Indeed, they expect this function to be the biggest part, if not the sole component, of their role as elected representatives of the people. What our people object to is the waste and the diversion of funds to private pockets.

Honest legislators who believe that this is not part of the work of legislation have every reason to refuse their pork barrel allocation.  We salute former senator Ping Lacson for doing so during his entire term. It is not to say that the rest who availed themselves of their annual allocation are all corrupt. But they must realize that the pork barrel is a tainted resource. They have the obligation not only to erase any suspicion that the money went into their pockets, but also to make sure that it was actually spent for the designated projects or the intended beneficiaries.

No legislator who taps into his pork barrel should have recourse to the excuse that monitoring and auditing are not their responsibility.  Maybe legally, they are not. But ethically, they are. I think that any senator or congressman who nominates a project for “priority development assistance” must be presumed not only to have done the proper studies but also to be concerned enough to want to know whether a project has been carried out as planned and has benefited the community it is meant to serve. To argue that these are not part of his duties—as Sen. Lito Lapid recently did in his defense of his allotments for supposed antidengue chemical sprays for communities that had no dengue problem—is not only self-serving but utterly irresponsible.

Clearly, what is terribly wrong about our present pork barrel system is that it is designed to work as a powerful inducement to corruption. The sheer availability of allotments for as yet unnamed projects serves as an invitation for creative suppliers like JLN Corp. to conjure and offer to their clients all kinds of projects that have no higher aim than to monetize the allotments. It is almost as if the facility was put there precisely to make every politician complicit and quiet while this annual robbery is routinely perpetrated on a helpless nation.

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