Moral progress and the pork barrel

We welcome the Ombudsman’s decision to file plunder and graft and corruption charges against Senators Enrile, Estrada and Revilla and several others who have been implicated in the P10-billion pork barrel scam. But, knowing how our legal system works, we would be naive to think that the trial may now smoothly proceed.

The main defendants in these cases are by no means retired politicians who no longer wield political power. They are among the wealthiest, wiliest, and most influential figures of our society. They have shown that they are ready to use any information they can lay their hands on to attack the credibility of the justice system and to divert the public’s attention away from their crimes. They can at any point deploy their comprehensive powers against any government official who crosses their path.

Be that as it may, we should not forget one arena in which the campaign for modern governance has made astonishing progress. And that is the public sphere, a crucial space in the modern political system that has been greatly enhanced by the power of social media. We must not underestimate the gains that have been won on this terrain in just less than a year. It is well to remind ourselves of the nature of these gains because having them in mind will help us keep our focus on what really matters.

We might start by recalling that before that historic 14-0 Supreme Court vote declaring the pork barrel system known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional on Nov. 19, 2013, it had pronounced the same practice constitutional on three previous occasions—in 1994, 2001 and 2012. As if to remove any doubt about the meaning of its latest ruling, the high court declared the pork barrel as “illegal on its face” and “unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.” It likewise declared as patently unconstitutional all such formal or informal practices of a similar nature that were committed in the past. Clearly, what changed here was not the practice but the perspective from which the high court viewed it. I call this moral progress.

This change in attitude may be a bit less visible in P-Noy’s case, but, to his credit, he has shown no hesitation in deploying the full force of government in order to bring the guilty to justice. When the pork barrel scam first hit the news, his initial reaction was to denounce the abuse of what he thought was basically a good thing. Facing the press after he addressed a conference on the Filipino language at Ateneo de Manila University on Aug. 19, 2013, he said: “As in everything else, there are good uses and bad uses…. If we scrap [the PDAF], then we presume that the national government knows all our needs and attends to these all the time, and I believe that’s a little farfetched.”

A few days later, he ordered the suspension of all PDAF releases. On Aug. 23, 2013, at a special press briefing held in Malacañang on precisely the same issue, he delivered his “Time to abolish PDAF” speech. This was just three days before the antipork barrel gathering known as the “Million People March,” and was obviously timed to take the wind out of the sails of the Luneta protest march.

While distancing himself from the abuses associated with the pork barrel, however, P-Noy continued to defend the “worthy goal” behind its inception during his mother’s presidency. “In 1990, what we now know as PDAF was established for a worthy goal: to enable your representatives to identify projects for your communities that your [local government unit] cannot afford. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy. But what is wrong—indeed, what has outraged our people—was the collusion among a former president ready to trade favors just to remain in power, legislators and members of the bureaucracy who were willing to conspire, enabled by a passive and indifferent citizenry. All these factors put together make PDAF prone to abuse.”

The Arroyo presidency’s insecurities may have aggravated the abuse of the pork barrel system. But, it is not accurate to assign exclusive authorship of the pork barrel scam to the Arroyo administration. The whole system itself was from the start designed to institutionalize the most dysfunctional components of traditional politics. Even where no kickback is paid, this manner of allocating public funds goes against the basic principles of sound governance. These are enshrined in the 1987 Constitution—a modern document if there is one—in the provisions on separation of powers. Instead of merely railing against its abuses, the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the whole system as unconstitutional.

So deeply entrenched are the ways of traditional politics in our highly unequal society that one would not have expected the political system to heal itself of its bad habits by its own initiative. It was the mass media, the new social media, and, finally, the justice system that exposed the system’s blind spots. But, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. I suspect that if all the cases for which there is evidence were seriously pursued, only a handful of our legislators would remain untainted. A sure sign that we have lost the issue to politics would be if the justice department and the Ombudsman stopped with the three opposition senators.

We should demand of every politician who has ever been a member of Congress between 1990 and 2013 that he/she render a detailed account of how and where they spent their pork barrel allotments during their incumbency—particularly if they are planning to run for public office in the next elections. Only in this manner can we keep the cause of good governance alive.

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