Can pork be good?

Rather than heed the growing public clamor to scrap the pork barrel portion in the current national budget, President Aquino has justified retaining it while calling for tighter control over its use.  He argues that the system of reserving funds for projects identified by legislators has the advantage of benefiting communities and addressing needs often neglected by the national government.  He cites his own experience as a former representative of Tarlac province.

There is no question that honest and conscientious legislators can put their pork barrel to good use.  By the same token, they may also be tempted by its sheer availability into pocketing it. The issue is: Is the pork barrel system the most rational way of spotting social needs that escape the notice of the national government?  Bear in mind that this is a system explicitly invented to accommodate politicians in their role as patrons, a mechanism that everywhere has been proven to be susceptible to widespread abuse.  Can anyone honestly think that effective controls may be built into the system without removing the one basic feature that defines it—personal discretion by politicians over the expenditure of public funds?

We all know this is not how government in a democracy is supposed to work. The work of legislators, insofar as the budget is concerned, is confined to reviewing the budgetary proposal submitted by the executive, scrutinizing and debating its general thrusts and priorities, and disallowing intended appropriations that cannot be justified.  This political power does not give congressmen and senators the discretion to allot money for their pet projects.  And, much less does it include the privilege of naming contractors and suppliers, and recommending designated beneficiaries.

Asked if he would give in to the public clamor to abolish the pork barrel, P-Noy was supposed to have retorted, “And then change it to what?”  I think the reasonable reply to that would be: “Just take it out—it is a superfluity.”  The administration of funds is not a legislative function. If the national government wants to make sure that underserved communities are attended to, all it needs to do is listen to the local development councils at all levels through the various government agencies on the ground.

There is a simple logical reason for keeping administration separate from politics.  The politicians who have the power to examine the budget might be more objective if they were not given a role in the actual administration of public money.  In turn, those in charge of the funds might be more conscientious in approving fund releases, bidding out contracts, monitoring projects, and auditing expenditures if they did not have to deal with politicians.  These are principles of modern governance that are embodied in our system of laws.

There is, of course, no guarantee that public funds would be better spent if the pork barrel system was abolished.  But the legislature might be in a better position to call the executive to task if its members were not in some way involved in executive functions. It may compel legislators to focus more on their core function—lawmaking and participation in parliamentary debates—to be assessed by voters on the basis of their parliamentary activity rather than on their patronal generosity.  At the very least, getting rid of the pork barrel is a direct way of removing one of the biggest sources of corruption in our society.

But I can understand why the average president of our country would want to retain the pork barrel system.  In the absence of a strong political party system, the power to release or to withhold Priority Development Assistance Fund allotments offers the executive strong leverage in its dealings with Congress.  We may also presume that every president could, if he asked for it, obtain a dossier on PDAF misuse by particular politicians, a weapon against political foes that is too good to give up.

Why is the clamor for the abolition of the pork barrel being addressed to P-Noy rather than to Congress?  It’s because we expect much from him. We expect him to be different—to be a modern, not just a moral, President.  We want him not just to set the example of honest leadership, but to change the system that corrupts even the best of our leaders.  We look up to him to use his popularity to initiate enduring reforms in governance and political practice, knowing he has little time left before he is replaced by another president.

It is regrettable that P-Noy does not appear to appreciate the depth of public disaffection over the pork barrel scam.  It took him more than a month to make a declaration on the pork barrel controversy, and all he could manage is to defend it as a neutral tool of governance.  He seems to believe that it can be regulated and its loopholes plugged, forgetting that it was not any branch or agency of government that exposed the scam but a couple of whistle-blowers.  If the Napoles group of bogus nongovernment organizations had not imploded, it is doubtful if the public would have known about the P10-billion pork barrel scam.

My hunch is that when the Commission on Audit completes its review of PDAF utilization, it will be found that at least half of the members of Congress were engaged in one form of irregularity or another.  Many routinely took kickbacks.  They knowingly channeled millions of their PDAF to shell NGOs whose performance they had no interest in monitoring.  Others lost all sense of shame and created their own NGOs, fattening these with their annual PDAF.  All contrary to law.

Can pork be good after it is cured?  Not in a political system dominated by insatiable swine.