A thesis on corruption

Even if only half of the allegations against her turn out to be true, Janet Lim-Napoles, the supposed brain behind the mind-boggling pork barrel scam that is the subject of ongoing Inquirer reports, would easily qualify as the country’s foremost expert on corruption. The elaborate scheme attributed to her presumes an intimate grasp of the workings of the political system that no Filipino scholar has ever fully documented. Napoles appears to have explored the weakest links of government and seen the vulnerabilities of officials at various levels. But, instead of writing a doctoral thesis or book on the topic, she has used this knowledge to build a lucrative business.

Should she ever land in prison and need a benign intellectual pursuit to keep her active mind at work, I would recommend that she consider writing a participant-observer account of the social system of corruption. I would be happy to offer advice on the theoretical framework. A working title for her thesis might be: “Politics and the function of corruption: How the pork barrel works.” The aim of the study would be to bring out the background assumptions implicit in the way the JLN group of companies navigated the murky waters of government. Such research would help transitional societies like ours find effective antidotes to the scourge of corruption in public service.

I would begin with the hypothesis that the pork barrel, which goes by the pretentious name Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), is really nothing more than a bribe to the legislators who hold the power to approve the national budget. This concession can take many forms and go by other names like “congressional initiatives.” But the basic idea is the same: to provide congressmen and senators the means to cater to the specific needs of their constituencies, and, if they wish, to recoup part of what they spend during elections.

This seemingly irrational feature of the political system proceeds from the recognition that in a society where material deprivation and lack of access to services continue to be the lot of the many, legislators find themselves having to attend to the personal needs of their constituents. This is not their function yet it is what makes running for office very costly. The lack of differentiation between government and politics per se precisely casts them in the role of overall patrons, well beyond the function of lawmaking. Lawmaking becomes, for many of them, no more than a peripheral chore. In such settings, one might as well replace Congress with a small commission of full-time professional experts on policy and law to work on legislation. But that would go against the tenets of representative democracy.

As I have previously said in this column, voters, in general, are not averse to the idea of giving their representatives the right to identify pet or priority projects. What they object to is the waste and misappropriation of public funds that typically result from the exercise of this power. The pork barrel scam to which the Napoles network is linked shows that corruption thrives where discretion is broad and no clear assignment of accountability exists.

As expected, legislators who were among the clients of the JLN group of companies deny any responsibility for the implementation and monitoring of the projects they identified for funding. The implementing agencies, on the other hand, claim they are only the channel for the release of the funds and point to the local governments as the answerable units. The latter, in turn, assert that the responsibility lies with the NGOs who are commissioned to deliver the goods and services. For their part, the NGOs claim they delivered the goods to the listed beneficiaries, but it is not their fault if these are fictitious.

One can imagine how much grease money is dispensed at every point in this chain of corruption. Yet, no one can easily be held accountable, except the lowest clerks in the totem pole of government who received the project proposals. The profitable business model that Napoles has explicitly designed for this environment is easy to replicate, but developing the key contacts in every office may take more time. It is thus not a surprise that it was the Napoles associates—Benhur K. Luy and Merlina P. Suñas—who emerged as the whistle-blowers in this case. Napoles says that they turned against her after she stopped them from striking out on their own.

Obviously, this problem will not go away with the elimination of one syndicate. It’s almost certain there are other operators out there that are lying low for now, waiting for the issue to die down. Their modus operandi is woven around the same assumptions about our political system, namely: that there is big money to be made from government, that every public official has a price, that everyone is on the take or complicit, and that even as investigations are launched to placate public anger, no one actually goes to jail unless they pose a political threat.

The main argument of this imaginary thesis would be that a political system like ours incorporates corruption into its operations as a condition for its maintenance. In short, corruption is functional to the system. The system’s default is to reproduce itself. Nothing will compel it to change except persistent pressure from outside the system. If the other institutional systems—the mass media, the Church, the economic system, the law, etc.—can generate enough noise and irritation over its performance, the political system will have no choice but to pause, reflect and reform.