Worse than the pork barrel

The original pork barrel system we borrowed from the United States pertains to projects introduced into the appropriations bill by members of Congress. This practice is now frowned upon as a throwback to the era of patronage politics because, while the costs are borne by every taxpayer, such projects tend to benefit only local or special constituencies.  As contradictory as this practice is to the principle of separation of powers, US lawmakers are never given any role in project implementation. That is where the line is drawn.

The Philippine adaptation of this practice, in contrast, greatly expands the legislative role in the budgetary process and freely crosses the line that differentiates basic functions. In name, the president proposes the budget, and Congress approves and appropriates the funds. In practice, however, once the budget is approved, the lawmakers are given the prerogative to recommend projects, the list of beneficiaries, and sometimes even the contractors. How is this possible?

The mechanism that enables congressmen and senators to have a hand in project implementation—clearly an executive function—has been called by various names. Its current incarnation is the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a lump-sum appropriation listed as an expense item in the national budget submitted by the president.  From this lump-sum item, each congressman draws up to P70 million, and every senator P200 million, to fund special projects they identify.

This arrangement maintains a veneer of constitutionality by portraying the lawmakers’ participation as limited to recommending projects. In short, they are supposed not to have the final say on the projects to be funded, how these are to be implemented, and who will undertake and oversee their implementation.  President Aquino confirmed this fiction when he said, in his oblique defense of the PDAF, that the lawmakers’ role is indeed only recommendatory. This has consequences.

By maintaining the pretense of legislative noninterference in the spending process, P-Noy in effect assumes all responsibility for any foul-up in the disbursement of public funds.  How can he prosecute lawmakers who are supposed to only recommend projects? If any of these funds were diverted to private pockets, then he has to ask the agencies directly under him—the Department of Budget and Management and the various implementing agencies—to explain how this happened. He must find out from the Commission on Audit, an independent constitutional office, to explain why and how the control mechanisms failed to operate.

That the diversion of funds took place before P-Noy assumed the presidency does not alter the duty to investigate, render a report, and prosecute those responsible for plunder and criminal negligence. The Department of Justice has filed plunder charges against some people. And, in its special report on PDAF releases for 2007-2009, the COA admitted multiple lapses in auditing and monitoring. Why does the President continue to insist there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the system itself?

How can he and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who both served in Congress for a long time, possibly not know how much power our lawmakers actually exercise over the disbursement of their PDAF? Not being naive politicians, they must be fully aware of the many ways in which these public funds were being misused. Yet, when they came to power, rather than put an end to the pork barrel system that oils our premodern political life, they preferred to leave it untouched, allowing each lawmaker to decide whether to apply these funds to purposes for which they were intended, or to pocket them.

Of course, this is all in accord with the logic of a traditional political system. In such a system, personal integrity is what matters. Accountability is only an option, not a structural requirement. Perhaps this is the basic flaw of P-Noy’s daang matuwid campaign: It relies too much on finding incorruptible officials and less on building modern systems that can compel us all to be truthful and honest.

But, I can understand, from an analyst’s point of view, why P-Noy might prefer to keep the powers that come with control of discretionary funds rather than give these up and pave the way for a more accountable system of budget planning and disbursement. P-Noy and his allies believe they can change our society for the better using the very tools of patronage associated with the old politics.  Maybe they are right, given that there is hardly anything left in this country that money cannot buy. But, they ought to know that without popular support, such change can easily be reversed under another administration.

Real change has to strike at the very root of our patronage-driven system—the mass poverty and the great disparity in wealth and power among our people. While poverty and inequality cannot be solved overnight, a lot can be done to build the foundation of a functioning democracy. Indeed, I think we have come to a point where we can now dare to shut off the faucet that has allowed corrupt politicians to look good by dispensing favors using public funds. The flipside of this is to encourage the poor to turn to institutions for the services and assistance they need, instead of calling on their patrons to secure these for them.

If P-Noy will not do it, neither will Congress.  For its part, the Supreme Court can always say that this is a policy question and that the high court should not be asked to correct the dysfunctions created by the kind of politicians we elect. That is why it is important for the President to spell the difference—now.