Pork in the 2015 budget

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago objects to the passage of the proposed national budget for 2015 because, among other things, it harbors pork barrel allocations, and thus violates the Supreme Court decision striking down the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The administration acknowledges that it has indeed received and taken into account project recommendations from lawmakers for their local constituencies in the crafting of the proposed budget. But, it contends that the proposed budget was precisely drafted in full awareness of the terms laid out in the high court’s decision.

Santiago is correct to use the term “pork barrel” to designate the pattern of distributive spending for lawmakers’ local projects that she sees in the 2015 budget. This term has its origins in American political practice, from which we have drawn the best and the worst of our political habits. Under this system, the performance of legislators is primarily measured not by the wisdom they bring into the lawmaking process but by the amount of public funds they bring home to their respective constituents—or by the number of government-funded projects they deliver to their campaign financiers.

Now widely frowned upon in modern democracies, the pork barrel system has however survived in many forms. In the Philippines, it took the form of a regular lump-sum appropriation in the national budget expressly intended for projects and beneficiaries to be nominated postbudget by members of Congress. At first glance, this practice seems like a surrender of executive powers. But, in fact, it became a powerful tool in the hands of the President to influence legislative behavior.

Technically speaking, lawmakers who were recipients of pork barrel allotments did not handle the money. But, the PDAF scam associated with Janet Lim Napoles showed in sordid detail how far many lawmakers were willing to go to divert the bulk of these funds into their own pockets.

The practice followed a route that was familiar to many bureaucrats in government. The lawmakers did not stop at nominating projects. They also decided which government agency or unit was to implement their PDAF-funded projects, and, worse, which private contractor would supply the goods and services needed by these projects. The modus operandi followed by the Napoles network of fake NGOs revealed the extreme vulnerability of the government’s control structure. Documented reports of the pattern of kickback payments that accompanied the implementation of PDAF projects triggered a public howl that resonated across the various institutions of government. The lawmakers who were criminally indicted refused to take any responsibility for their projects, arguing that their participation had been nominal and purely recommendatory.

On at least three occasions in the past, the Supreme Court upheld this fiction and pronounced the PDAF constitutional. The loud protests unleashed by revelations of the Napoles scandal, however, radically changed the equation. The high court was left with no choice but to reverse its previous rulings when another case was filed questioning the constitutionality of the PDAF. It then proceeded to declare unequivocally that the intervention of lawmakers in the actual disbursement of appropriated funds was a usurpation of an executive function and a clear violation of the check-and-balance system and the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.

In a previous column, I extolled the high court’s decision on the PDAF as a giant step in the direction of governance reform. But, I was under no illusion that this would spell the death of the pork barrel system or, least of all, of patronage politics. I wrote (Inquirer, 5/15/14): “Nothing in this ruling prevents the executive branch from accommodating specific requests from favored legislators. Indeed, nothing prevents lawmakers from using their influence and connections in various government departments to secure funds for their pet projects.”

The pork barrel indeed seems alive and well in the proposed national budget for 2015. But it is now entirely up to Congress, exercising its “power of the purse,” to either remove or retain these local projects which had been identified by its own members. There is a difference between the 2014 pork barrel and its 2015 incarnation. In 2014, as in all previous years, funds were approved for projects that lawmakers were yet to propose. In 2015, following the high court’s decision, lawmakers have recommended local projects for inclusion in the draft national budget. These are subject to scrutiny and possible scrapping in the course of the congressional budget deliberations. Lump-sum appropriations indeed appear in the proposed budget, mainly to cover contingencies, but there is an explicit proviso requiring all agencies with lump sums to submit to Congress and the Commission on Audit itemized lists before funds are actually released. This arrangement leaves ample wiggle room for the old game of patronage, but, compared to past practices, it is more transparent.

To many, the difference may be minor. Whether inserted postbudget or prebudget, appropriations explicitly meant to favor local constituencies are still pork barrel. But, note that it wasn’t the pork barrel per se that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. What the high court magistrates denounced was the practice of allowing lawmakers to intervene in the actual expenditure of the approved budget. This not only made a mockery of the check-and-balance mechanisms laid out in the Constitution but also became an invitation to corruption.

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