What the pork barrel scam reveals about us

For more than 10 years, a good number of lawmakers, with the aid of the fixers who assisted them, were able to pocket the entire cash value of their Priority Development Assistance Fund, without anyone in government publicly protesting that there was anything wrong in what they were doing. That is astonishing. It reveals a high tolerance for corruption that contradicts all the norms of modern government enshrined in our Constitution. It exposes the feebleness of our institutional control systems.

No amount of tweaking can cure the loopholes in the system unless we begin to understand where corruption comes from, why it persists, or how it is maintained through time.

First of all, I think it is important to go beyond explanations that view corruption in simple moral terms—for instance, as the product of greed or evil or of a deeply flawed character. Such descriptions do not prod us to inquire into the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible. The word “corruption” itself has no analytical value. It doesn’t tell us what social factors drive it, and how it is able to engage the seeming cooperation of so many people. We must go beyond labels, and analyze the complex series of acts to which it refers. We need to ask how it is possible for something so despicable (as we view corruption from a distance) to elude detection and condemnation.  We need to know what it is about our society that makes corruption functional.

My own view, as a student of society, is that what is called corruption refers to a wide range of acts, many of which hide behind the veneer of public service. In general, corruption is a way of doing things that ignores the differentiation of functional responsibilities which one takes for granted in a modern society. Thus, almost all instances of corruption involve the abuse of power or prerogative. Office-holders overstep the boundaries of their formal duties, or allow others to take over or subvert the functions and decisions that rightfully belong to their office.

The motives behind corruption vary. Most people do it for the money or the power they derive from it. Others participate in it out of fear or pakikisama (social acceptance).  The range of possible motives is an interesting subject to study. But, my own interest is in knowing how people are able to carry it out in spite of the control systems supposedly in place.  How is it that others who are not themselves corrupt learn to tolerate it? It is remarkable that none of the whistle-blowers in the pork barrel scam are public officials. The practice could have continued undisturbed if Janet Lim-Napoles had not unwittingly triggered a whole train of events when she allegedly threatened and detained Benhur Luy. Benhur Luy himself might not have turned into a whistle-blower if his parents had not asked the National Bureau of Investigation to rescue him.

There are other equally remarkable things in this sordid affair. It is fair to assume, I think, that every lawmaker who has spent some time in Congress knows more or less how the PDAF is abused, and how easy it is for even the most honest among them to be tempted into misappropriating these funds. It is, of course, admirable that legislators like Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Sen. Joker Arroyo consistently refused to touch their PDAF. Yet, it is remarkable that neither one saw it fit to blow the whistle on their colleagues in such a way as to cause a serious investigation of its abuse.

Perhaps they thought it was futile to do so.  After all, the Supreme Court itself had previously ruled that the PDAF was legal, noting that the lawmakers’ participation in its utilization was limited to recommending projects. In theory, this was indeed a minor concession to lawmakers, not enough to violate the constitutional separation of legislative and executive powers. In practice, however, everyone knew that lawmakers were actively recommending not so much the projects as the contractors that would handle them. We now know that some lawmakers habitually funneled billions of pesos in public funds to moribund government corporations that were nothing but empty shells. It is remarkable that, with their retinue of researchers, they could pretend not to know that the implementing agencies and NGO contractors they chose were the least reliable partners they could possibly enlist if they had meant to put their PDAF to good use.

There were other “red flags” all over. They were seen, but willfully ignored. The executive agencies knew what was going on, but, in the general scheme of Philippine politics, they had reason not to raise a stink, unless the people above them were prepared to do battle. It is no joke crossing swords with lawmakers, who tend to close ranks when they feel their institution is under attack. Every lawmaker learns not only the art of shadow-boxing but also the all-important science of avoiding antagonistic confrontations that could boomerang while yielding little political value.

The Commission on Audit, on whose vigilance rests the government’s self-imposed pledge to be honest, legally has the power to demand complete liquidation reports for every peso of public money spent, but, unless it can draw support from other branches of government and from an awakened citizenry, it is no match against the power of legislators.

In sum, the pork barrel scam shows us the ugly side of a premodern political system that is basically unchecked by the rule of law, even as it has freed itself from the moral restraints (e.g., delicadeza and sense of honor) that used to bind rulers of an earlier time.

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