A double take on pork

A “double take,” Webster’s Dictionary tells us, is “a delayed reaction to some remark, situation, etc., in which there is at first unthinking acceptance and then startled surprise or a second glance as the real meaning or actual situation suddenly becomes clear…” That is exactly what many probably experienced after President Aquino proclaimed he was abolishing the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and then proceeded to describe a “new mechanism” to replace it.

My 12-year-old granddaughter, Julia, who plans to come with us to Monday’s Million People March, watched attentively as the President spoke in Filipino. She admires P-Noy, and started to applaud when he said, “Panahon  na  po  upang  i-abolish  ang  PDAF.” Then she got lost in the verbiage, and turned to me: “What’s he saying?”

The confusion, I think, arises from a fundamental disagreement over what is to be abolished. The President and Congress take the abolition of the PDAF to mean the cancellation of the lump sum appropriation reserved every year for the pet projects of legislators. In the proposed 2014 budget, the amount involved is P27 billion. From this fund, each representative and senator could draw up to P70 million and P200 million, respectively, for projects of their own choosing. It is this reserved fund that P-Noy is abolishing.

But critics of the PDAF are not appeased by this concession. Their outrage over the P10-billion scam pulled by the Napoles group of bogus NGOs with the connivance of legislators is of such magnitude that they demand no less than the scrapping of the whole pork barrel system whereby lawmakers—who wield the power to pass or reject the budget—are given the privilege of proposing specific projects for their favored constituencies.

Our politicians—not just P-Noy—are prepared to give up the lump sum PDAF, but wish to retain the prerogative of recommending projects that cannot be funded locally from the income and internal revenue allotment of local government units. The difference from past practice lies in the stringent controls outlined by the Department of Budget and Management.  Among other things, the projects must fit into the menu specified by the national budget. So-called “soft projects” such as the distribution of medical kits, seeds and fertilizers, will not be allowed. All projects have to go through the normal public bidding process, etc.

I am sorry to say that, for once, P-Noy misread the signs of the times. He underestimated the depth of the public reaction to the pork barrel scandal. The indignation rapidly evolved, gathering momentum with every revelation of the brazen way in which billions in public funds were stolen, and drawing strength from memories of past betrayals by unaccountable public officials.

This is a different kind of Edsa in the making. It is new in that it is driven by the emotional contagion sparked, spread and sustained by social media. It is this same spirit that has fueled the various forms of “occupy” social movements around the world today—in societies as diverse as Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and the United States.

Here, in our country, I believe that the anger is directed not against any person in particular, but against an entire system—a way of doing things—that permits elected officials to enrich themselves in power, while ensuring their and their relatives’ monopoly on power through acts of patronage. It is a system that feeds on the poverty and powerless of the many, corrupting every modern institution that stands in the way of the selfish agenda of those in power.

The system goes beyond Congress and the presidency. It goes all the way down to the lowest barangay, where councilmen routinely trade their duty to speak in the name of the common good for their own share of the local pork barrel. One wonders how many barangays bother to convene community assemblies as they are required by law. How many development councils at the barangay, municipal, city and provincial levels meet regularly to discuss concrete plans for their communities? How many congressmen hold regular genuine consultations with their constituencies? As representatives of the people, they have the duty to attend development council meetings in their districts in order to listen to the problems and plans of their constituencies. How many of them take this function seriously?

P-Noy insists that lawmakers should be allowed to retain the privilege of proposing local projects. Why? Is this something that local government units cannot do? I thought this was the idea behind the new system of bottom-up-budgeting currently being piloted in some provinces. Clearly, the “new mechanism” that P-Noy has in mind is still a pork barrel, albeit a cured one. It is still a way of accommodating the needs of lawmakers as patrons, because, in truth, many have nothing to show by way of legislative performance.

If the President’s little speech on the pork barrel had been the core of his State of the Nation-Address last July, his message would certainly have sent shock waves through the whole political system. It would have been hailed as an act of moral courage and a shining example of modern statesmanship. It would have ushered a paradigm shift in the nation’s political practice.

Delivered one month later, the same message was heard, at best, as a grudging attempt to placate public anger and to defuse an evolving political crisis. For some, it came out as an example of double speak, unworthy of a president of whom so much is expected. To be fair, I think we should not lose track of the boldness it contains, insufficient as it may be as a remedy for the nation’s basic ills.

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