The pork wars

If our legislators did not have pork to spend, many of them would not know what to do with their time in Congress. They see themselves primarily as dispensers of public funds, oblivious of the law that regards this as chiefly an executive function. They are annoyed when asked about bills they have proposed or about how they have voted on crucial pieces of legislation.

When the Supreme Court struck down the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) five years ago for being unconstitutional, people thought that, finally, those who were unfit for the demanding task of legislation would be discouraged from seeking congressional seats. But this is not what happened.

A period of confused silence quickly passed, and before anyone could say how the high court’s ruling affects Congress’ vaunted power of the purse, pork was back. Only, this time, in lieu of lump sum allocations, every expenditure item needed to be specified.

In the meantime, countless existing laws, long rendered obsolete by rapidly changing times, are waiting to be amended, codified or abolished. Yet, only a handful of legislators are able to muster enough interest and intelligence to attend to this vital task.

The sad truth, however, is that the majority of voters themselves do not appreciate meaningful legislative work. Their eyes are focused on the personal kindnesses and attention that elected officials give to their constituents’ needs — the personal notes they write guaranteeing payment of medical expenses incurred at government hospitals, or the slots and scholarships they reserve for their constituents at state colleges and universities.

When the new government took office in 2016, its officials had to work with a national budget that tried to keep as closely as possible to the Supreme Court’s concept of a pork-free budget. If they wanted pork, members of Congress had to beg for it from the President or his budget secretary. No one called it pork or PDAF. Every additional allotment given served the same function—to allow favored politicians to bring home more bacon to their districts.

Conscientious legislators like Sen. Ping Lacson, who has piously refused to avail himself of pork, annually comb the proposed budget searching for hidden lump sums. But, so complex is the national expenditure program that anyone who knows his/her way around the budget planning process can find a myriad ways of hiding unprogrammed funds in its many folds.

Pork is the oxygen that keeps our political system alive. When President Duterte appeared to show no interest in using it as a tool to buy loyalty, some of his allies began to think they could afford to be more assertive in staking their claims to pork without incurring his ire.

This is exactly what happened soon after Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo grabbed the position of Speaker of the House from Pantaleon Alvarez just before President Duterte was to deliver his State of the Nation Address last year. Although she was in hospital detention during much of the previous administration’s term, Arroyo kept abreast of political developments.

The victory of Mr. Duterte, an old friend of hers, signaled her political resurrection. The neck brace she had worn in public as a badge of infirmity to justify her urgent petition to post bail disappeared overnight. Brimming with energy, the former president convened meetings with business leaders well before Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet could feel its way in the corridors of power.  From the looks of it, she was positioning herself to be a major voice in the charting of the Duterte administration’s economic direction.

It soon became obvious, however, that Mr. Duterte’s appointed economic managers would not yield even an inch of their turf to this eager ally. Undeterred, Arroyo found another route, and, along the way, discovered a crucial ally in Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio. The feisty presidential daughter was only too happy to see former speaker Alvarez, whose swagger she could not abide, mercilessly deposed and replaced by a woman.

GMA and her cabal of lieutenants in the House wasted no time in making their presence felt. To budget chief Ben Diokno’s dismay, they proceeded to make their own insertions in an appropriations bill that was already bursting with the pork of the previous House leadership. Diokno saw behind their orchestrated moves not only a further delay in the passage of the budget, but also a long-term bid to capture all available discretionary funds.

GMA’s people, all grizzled survivors of traditional politics, certainly knew which buttons to press and how to use media’s thirst for scandal to shift public attention away from their own questionable practices. They summoned Diokno to a hearing before the House and accused him of padding the budget of some agencies without the latter’s knowledge. Worse, they have linked him to a group of contractors who seem to have cornered a sizeable chunk of flood control projects. They have asked the President to fire him.

While Mr. Duterte himself has not said anything in defense of Diokno, the rest of the Cabinet, in particular the economic managers, have expressed their support for the embattled technocrat. One can only suppose that they see in all this the making of a different kind of coup — one that aims to quietly put in place a government nominally headed by the popular but unpredictable Mr. Duterte, but actually run by the unpopular but reliable Arroyo. In the minds of the elites who support Mr. Duterte, no arrangement could be more perfect.