Targeting presidential pork

In the light of the P10-billion pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by Janet Lim-Napoles with the implied consent of members of Congress, some groups now seek to focus public attention on President Aquino’s own pork barrel. So as not to muddle the issues, we might usefully sort out the various meanings attached to the term “pork barrel.”

Strictly speaking, the concept of “pork barrel” applies only to lawmakers, to refer to the practice of according influential legislators the privilege of appropriating public funds for their pet projects. This practice, which originated in the United States, is widely seen as pushing the congressional power of appropriation a bit too far, to the point of making a mockery of the principle of separation of governmental functions. Pork is generally frowned upon in modern democracies as a vestige of traditional politics.

In modern political systems, Congress wields the power to approve the budget, while the President, as chief executive, has the power to disburse public money according to the approved budget. In this context, the notion of a presidential pork barrel makes no sense because the entire approved budget is, to all intents and purposes, under the control of the President.

But as I understand the call for the abolition of presidential pork, the objection specifically refers to the large amounts of unprogrammed funds under the disposal of the President.  Some of these funds are not part of the approved national budget. A good example would be the proceeds from the casino operations of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), a percentage of which is turned over to the President’s Social Fund.  Others are in the nature of lump sum provisions for contingencies that are found in the budgets of various departments of government.

I fully sympathize with the call for transparency and accountability, and to limit the scope of personal discretion in the use of all public funds. But, I think it may be going too far to demand that all lump sum provisions be deleted from the budget of government offices. It is conventional to set aside a portion of any budget (usually 5-15 percent) to take care of so-called contingencies or unforeseen expenses. So long as these are spent for designated purposes and are properly accounted for, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. Indeed, this is integral to the administrative function.

As to whether the President should have his own social fund, to be disbursed according to his personal discretion, I think this is an issue that can be properly debated in the legislature. As governance becomes more complex, it is probably best to assign those needs currently funded by the President’s Social Fund and other funds of a similar nature to the relevant departments or agencies of government. We have seen how funds like these were notoriously abused during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

But even as we keep an eye on the executive branch, let us not allow ourselves to be diverted from the main issue that confronts us today—what to do with an institutionalized pork barrel system that has practically turned Congress into a pigsty of corruption. In the quest for answers, it may be useful to do a quick review of how we got to the situation in which we find ourselves.

The 1935 Constitution gave Congress the right to increase the proposed appropriations for itself and the judiciary. This right, however, was subsequently deleted from the scope of congressional power of appropriation and no longer appears in the 1987 Constitution. But, perhaps to accommodate our lawmakers, the Cory Aquino administration put in a lump sum provision in its proposed budget every year and called it the Community Development Fund, to be used for local projects recommended by legislators. This was later renamed Countryside Development Fund, and, much later, Priority Development Assistance Fund.

Other things happened along the way. First, a lot of foreign aid was being given to the government to help nurture the newly-restored democracy, and soon nongovernment organizations (NGOs) found themselves being offered public funds in order to solve the “limited absorptive capacity” of government. Second, access to the pork barrel was democratized by allotting equal amounts to members of Congress (P70 million for each representative and P200 million for each senator).

Perhaps, in the beginning, greed was moderate. Lawmakers were content to get 10-15 percent of the value of their projects as kickback from the contractors they recommended.  But seeing that officials in government departments through which these projects were channeled could easily be intimidated or bought, some got bolder and demanded bigger cuts. The lack of transparency in the implementation was compounded by the absence of accountability in the auditing process. Heads of agencies generally avoid incurring the ire of lawmakers. They know how members of Congress could get back at anyone who displeased them in any of their hearings. The resulting total breakdown in the control system over the pork barrel bred the kind of schemes we now associate with the Napoles group of NGOs: ghost projects, bogus NGOs, shell state corporations, fictitious supplies, nonexistent beneficiaries, and 60-70 percent kickback for lawmakers.

Even in its benign forms, the pork barrel system cannot be justified. In our highly unequal society, it works purely as a tool of patronage.  It encourages mendicancy among the poor. It weakens the check-and-balance mechanisms of government. It corrupts even the most idealistic of our public officials.