After excising the PDAF tumor

By striking down the controversial Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) for lawmakers’ projects for being unconstitutional, the Supreme Court signaled the urgency of reforming the way we conduct the affairs of government. The high court took a bold step in reversing its two previous rulings on the same issue. It did not articulate a new doctrine. It simply affirmed the modernist foundations of the 1987 Constitution—specifically, the principle of separation of powers.

The noted constitutionalist, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, in his Inquirer commentary the other day, observed that the decision “restores the normal constitutional order of handling public money.” I expect the effects to be more far-reaching. The decision bans not just the PDAF but the pork barrel system itself in all its conceivable forms. It declares as illegal the very mechanism that, in spite of our modern constitution, has held back the formation of a modern polity.

All this may sound abstract. So let us try to put in concrete terms the expected consequences. From now on, congressmen and senators will not be able to access lump-sum public funds with which to finance projects of their choice. They might still recommend projects for inclusion in the budget proposals of government agencies, but there will be no guarantee that any of these will be included in the final approved budget. But more important, lawmakers are henceforth explicitly prohibited from having any participation in the actual implementation of government projects. They will no longer have the power to designate the implementing agencies, recommend contractors, suppliers, or nongovernment organizations, or, even less, name the individual beneficiaries of government projects or programs—all of which have been sources of corruption.

Any lawmaker who tries to do any of these risks not only being rebuffed but also criminally prosecuted. In view of this ruling, people now ask what will take the place of the existing pork barrel system. This question baffles me. It shows that the system of personal patronage has become so deeply rooted in our society that we have a hard time imagining how a government is supposed to work without the personal intercession of politicians. We seem to forget that in many of our institutions, modern governance systems are already in place. Here, programs aimed at benefiting the public at large are rationally designed to take into account the actual needs of people. They are guided by transparent rules and procedures rather than by the preferences of politicians. Applicants are assessed strictly in terms of criteria of eligibility rather than on the basis of their possession of referral letters from patrons. They are served on a first-come-first-served basis.

I can’t understand why the elimination of lawmaker participation in the actual implementation of the budget should leave a problematic gaping hole in the governance process. This is, after all, the function of the administrative wing of government. Lawmakers retain the right to evaluate and investigate government performance in all its aspects, and indeed, they may even be in a better position to carry out this oversight function if they have nothing to do with implementation.

As for the preparation of the national budget, no one questions the ultimate power of Congress to determine for what purposes public money should be spent. But Congress is not supposed to start from nothing. The budgetary process requires the various government agencies to come up with collated proposals drawn from the lowest units of government. That is how it should be in a democracy. Congress is not expected to embody the highest form of rationality in the national community, but the collective voice of the communities below.

But, clearly, the vaunted power over the purse has gone to our lawmakers’ heads. Since they have disposition over the nation’s coffers, they must think it is natural that they be allotted a portion of the public funds for their own individual projects. While this may resonate with the culture of patronage that still prevails in our highly unequal society, it patently contradicts the basic logic of our modern institutional system as laid out in our Constitution.

Ironically, instead of removing this cancerous lump from the political system, every administration had seemed to tolerate it, even discovering in its benign appearance a reliable remedy for countering congressional recalcitrance. That is how it eventually found its way in every budget—a lump-sum appropriation meant for lawmakers—without Congress having to ask for it. It didn’t take long for this tumor to engulf the whole system. Its institutionalization has made the Philippine legislature the most lucrative public office a politician can aspire for, next only to the presidency. It has completely reconfigured the lawmaker’s function. Not only has it attracted the wrong people to government, it has also made running for Congress the extremely costly affair it is today.

At its advanced stage, the menacing image of this metastasized cancerous tissue in our political life is the Napoles pork barrel scam. So insidiously did it work its way into the system that hardly anyone took notice until the staff of Janet Lim-Napoles blew the whistle. Even the Supreme Court was in denial of the disease as late as April last year, when it upheld the legality of the PDAF.

Now there is hope. Without the PDAF, not much is left for the cancer to feed on. The surgeons at the high court have done their part. It is for us now to restore the vigor of the patient.