Rethinking the functions of Congress

Seeing how closely our congressmen and senators guard their power to recommend projects for their districts and constituencies, I wonder if the pork barrel issue is not mainly a problem of expectations about the functions of Congress. It appears that a good majority of the members of Congress do in fact see their role primarily in terms of how they can maximize their share of the pork barrel. In turn, voters tend to assess the performance of lawmakers mostly on the basis of how much in direct material benefits they can deliver.

It looks to me that this mindset is what permits our political leaders, including President Aquino himself, to argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). What is wrong, they say, is the diversion of these public funds into the private pockets of lawmakers and their partners. Thus, what is derisively called patronage politics is not necessarily bad. It is just the way politics is conducted, given the realities of our society.

This view of our political system overlooks two things. The first is that this is not how the legislature’s function is described in the Constitution. The 1987 Constitution, like the ones that came before it, is remarkable in its modernity. It carefully differentiates the various functions of government and assigns these to separate and autonomous branches, thus creating a system of checks and balances. Accordingly, Congress passes laws, the Executive administers and enforces the laws, and the Judiciary resolves conflicts by issuing binding interpretations of the laws.

It is, of course, foolish to think that a constitution is self-executing. We have seen how the clearest constitutional provisions can be differently interpreted at different times by political leaders and magistrates alike. Some parts of a constitution may sometimes appear too advanced for the kind of society that exists, posing problems of incompatibility. Still, it is useful to think of a constitution as a set of guidelines and aspirations that a nation has to keep in mind if it is to stabilize its internal and external relationships. It is not unusual for a society, in the course of its evolution, to find itself becoming more faithful to its constitution. This is particularly true in countries that borrowed their institutions from their former colonial masters.

I think we have precisely come to that point where citizens feel they should not need the mediation of patrons to access public goods and services. I believe Filipinos have begun to see that the culture of patronage is an obstacle to democracy. Nowadays we see our people falling in line and patiently waiting for their turn. They protest when others jump the line or demand undue exemption from the rules. On this view, the PDAF is emblematic of that “datu-sakop” culture that treated the individual as unworthy of attention unless he/she was somehow connected to a chieftain.

But the second thing that the defenders of the PDAF cannot seem to understand is that the pork barrel system has become so vulnerable to abuse that it has become practically synonymous to corruption. How and when did this happen?

I think this happened more or less at the same time that the political order opened its doors to players from outside the traditional governing classes. The ethic of delicadeza or personal honor that constrained leaders in traditional society vanished almost overnight. New politicians saw public office as a lucrative occupation rather than as a vocation, spending huge sums of money to win positions whose functions they knew nothing about.

From being merely a tool of patronage, the pork barrel quickly morphed into a bottomless source of corruption. As electoral runs became more costly, the siphoning of public funds from pork barrel allocations became more vicious. Syndicates, like the nongovernment organizations linked to Janet Lim-Napoles that specialized in the systematic conversion of the PDAF into cash, proliferated. They bribed their way through the control system of the bureaucracy. They were untouchable because their principal clients—congressmen and senators—did not hesitate to deploy their considerable influence and powers to subdue any effort to audit them.

This system has long become dysfunctional as a means of delivering goods and services to remote communities and underserved constituencies. It has outlived its usefulness and cannot be reformed.

If public pressure against the pork barrel system is sustained, two good things can happen. The first is the more careful crafting of the national budget, entailing an expanded bottom-up-budgeting process that engages the various development councils and stakeholders at all levels of government. Hand in hand with this would be the empowerment of professional civil servants and their insulation from political interference.

The second desired outcome is perhaps more important. And that is the long overdue redefinition of the legislative function. Between a Congress that acts primarily as a dispenser of patronage and a Congress that styles itself as a deliberative body answering to a higher rationality, there is room for a legislature whose lawmaking and oversight function closely follows the day-to-day administration of government and its impact on the public. To me, the main function of such a Congress is to ensure the political system’s adequacy to the growing complexity of its environment.

This is serious, demanding work, not a part-time job for boxers, movie actors, TV hosts, and businessmen.