De-personalizing governance

It’s been almost two months now since the pork barrel scam was first reported by the Inquirer. The newsworthiness of this event has been unusually protracted. People ask how this will end and what good things, if any, might come out of it. Apart from the prosecution and jailing of the individuals who took part in this systematic looting of the public coffers, I personally hope that the total scrapping of the pork barrel system would signal the advent of a new political culture.

The pork barrel, political dynasties, the so-called epal syndrome, the use of patrons to access various government services or to apply for government positions, and even the intertwining of personal interests and public issues in official proceedings, etc.—all these belong to the old political culture. What they have in common is a disdain for professionalism and collective authority, and a preference for the idiosyncratic approach to governance. In such a setup, the fate of governance is made to depend largely on the personal integrity, delicadeza, and moral restraint of public officials.

In contrast, the new political culture relies not so much on the contingencies of personal morality but on the systematic differentiation of functions and assignment of accountability.  Much is removed from the sphere of personal discretion either through the institution of transparent criteria and procedures or the assignment of decision-making to deliberative bodies. It is accurate to say that the new political culture de-personalizes governance. Voters elect public officials not on the basis of personal gratitude or expectation of what they can do for them and their families, but on what they can do for the common good.

All this sounds rational and logical. Yet some people would defend to the death the old culture. What will happen to the power of Congress over the budget, asks one senior senator. We may as well abolish Congress, he says.  In the light of what the public now knows, I’m sure many Filipinos would not object to that.

But, let us consider what tasks a new political culture might give to congressmen and senators, if they were not so blinded by the pork barrel. I think Sen. Ralph Recto is showing his esteemed colleagues the proper way to discharge their functions under Article VI, Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution. Nothing in this constitutional provision gives legislators any say in the actual expenditure of the appropriations they approve. Their duty rather is to scrutinize the budget proposal submitted by the president, and to debate the priorities it embodies.

The other day, Sentor Recto reported the initial results of his careful analysis of the proposed budget for 2014. This is what he found: P94 billion worth of unspecified projects are contained in various lump sum appropriations. These are listed under general categories like the following: “Farm-to-Market Road Fund” of the Department of Agriculture (P12 billion), “Classroom Construction, Repair, Replacement Fund” under the Department of Education (P37.7 billion), “Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan Program” in various agencies (P7.2 billion), “Health Facilities Enhancement Program” of the Department of Health (P13.3 billion), etc.

“If we are looking for a template that can be followed in breaking down huge but vague allocations, then maybe we can start by specifying where classrooms, health centers, farm-to-market roads will be built,” Recto told Budget Secretary Butch Abad. This is exactly the kind of work we expect from our legislators. But, how many of them bother to read even a chapter of the proposed budget? How many would dare raise and pursue a critical comment if they are fixated on getting their pork barrel allocations?

It is ironic that such critical observations should come from Recto, for he is part of the administration party. One wonders where the opposition is and what it does while waiting for the release of its members’ pork barrel.

It’s incredible to hear otherwise intelligent people talk as if the pork barrel were the main reason for being of all politics. They worry about what will happen to the students they send to school from their pork barrel, the thousands of hungry kids they feed, and the hundreds of patients who come to them for their medical needs. But, don’t they know this is not their work?

If the pork barrel is to be scrapped, they say, then critics should also tell the masses to stop going to the legislators for all their needs. Indeed, we should. People developed the bad habit of approaching politicians for all their needs precisely because the latter cast themselves in the role of patrons who would use their money, power and influence to serve the needs of their followers.

This political culture—this way of getting and using power—is typically found in segmented societies in which identities given at birth, such as those based on family, clan, ethnicity, or race, remain strong. It is also found in highly stratified societies in which a person’s life chances are almost wholly determined by his or her place in a hierarchical order. Here, rulers rein in their greed and cruelty out of a sense of nobility, and not because they feel accountable to their subjects or fear the law.

Ours is no longer a society of arbitrary rulers. But pernicious practices from the old order have persisted, defying the functional rationality of the modern institutional system laid out in our constitution. It is time we retraced our way back to the legacy of political modernity, which, once upon a time, made us the envy of the developing world. It’s time we rededicated ourselves to a new political culture.