Power of the purse: Probing the politics behind the pork barrel
(This article was first published in print in issue 7 of the Philippine Collegian on 2 August 2013.)
by Klidel Rellin
The Batasan Complex is always busy. Cars of all shapes and sizes bearing the plate numbers 7 and 8 fill the parking lots while their owners—lawmakers in barong, crisp suits and sheath dresses—spend their day at the House of Representatives. Within its august halls, however, dirty secrets lurk.
Arguably the worst kind involves the legislators’ misuse of public coffers, especially the pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). As controversies one after another hounded PDAF spending, we see the sad truth that it has become.
Pork and patronage
The phrase ’pork barrel’ was first used in the United States to refer to containers where salted pork are stored. Some of these would later be given as reward to the slaves who would then compete for their share. By mid-1800s, alluding to the “fatness of pork”, the term has become synonymous to the largesse in American politics , which becomes basis for patronage.
During US President William Taft’s time, pork barrel was introduced to the Philippines. It has since become known as the funding given to congressmen and senators for their discretionary use. Back then, lawmakers proposed the projects they want to be funded under the national budget, subject to the deliberation of the assembly. Ideally, PDAF can be used to finance scholarships, infrastructure developments, and even programs of philanthropic groups and non-government organizations (NGOs).
Formerly called congressional allocations, the Supreme Court under the Cory Aquino administration declared the appropriation of the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF). The CDF revived these allocations with “definitive parameters, equal appropriations, built-in accountability and clear transparency” which were absent during the profligacy and corruption of the Marcos regime. However, contrary to its goals, corruption scandals were later linked to the CDF. This prompted the congress to rename it to PDAF and revise its implementation rules.
Currently, P24.9 billion or 1.25 percent of the P2 trillion national budget is allotted for the PDAF. The annual PDAF of senators totals P200 million while P70 million is apportioned to each of the 294 district and party-list representatives. Meanwhile, the President’s PDAF, also called the President’s Social Fund, amounts to nearly P1 billion.
As part of the country’s budget, the PDAF targets small-scale ventures which are not part of the national plans. Legislators themselves identify the projects to be funded, the liquidation for which will later be assessed by the Commission on Audit (COA). But the verification of fund beneficiaries is outside COA’s duty. The lack of such a process opens opportunities for corruption and appropriation for bogus organizations, ghost projects and syndicates—an evident misuse of public funds.
All checks, no balances
When reports of the P10 billion scam concerning 28 lawmakers and Janet Lim-Napoles broke out, the legislators faced renewed calls for abolition of the PDAF. But stories about the embezzlement of pork barrel funds are nothing new.
Based on a study by the Stockholm-based think-tank International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the trend of using the PDAF escalates when elections are near and that around 20 percent of the national budget is lost due to corruption.
If anything, the most recent expose involving Lim-Napoles only showed how pocketing the pork barrel is easily and systematically accomplished. According to Benhur Luy, her former assistant, Lim-Napoles created a dozen ghost NGOs to benefit from the PDAF of the accused lawmakers, and allocations were directed to her bank account.
In light of the revelations, lawmakers belonging to the progressive Makabayan Coalition, had again called for scrapping the PDAF: “[Our bill] shall prohibit the President from providing budgetary items or including in the proposed budget lump sum allocations to the PDAF. Aside from the legislators’ pork barrel, the bill [shall bar] the Presidential pork barrel funds such as the President’s Social Fund,” read the Makabayan Coalition’s press statement.
That the system promotes patronage politics was evident early on in Aquino III’s term. For instance, budget secretary Butch Abad allegedly refused to release the pork funds of former opposition congresswoman Mitos Magsaysay, and justified the act by saying it is a political reality. The power to withhold the PDAF of certain lawmakers then permits the administration to impose its will on Congress.
According to the Center for People Empowerment and Governance, a public policy center, patronage politics also boosts centralization of powers that sustains the domination of political clans. For its part, independent research group IBON Foundation asserts that the skewed appropriations for the PDAF are inconsistent with PNoy’s goal to fight corruption.
Not a necessity
As the PDAF remains the subject of heated debates, some have argued that scrapping the PDAF will deprive the lawmakers’ constituency of development. For example, Sen. Vicente Sotto III explains that without the PDAF, legislators must include their projects in the General Appropriations Act, making the process more tedious and difficult to monitor.
But Senators Chiz Escudero, in his first few years, and Panfilo Lacson, were known for not using their pork barrel funds, with the latter even asserting that “lawmakers should not build roads.” In addition, former Bayan Muna representative Teddy Casiño argues that duty-wise, it is not the obligation of the congressmen and senators to initiate projects. After all, the constitution stipulates that legislators are primarily responsible for making laws and budget appropriations. These duties prohibit lawmakers from stamping their name in projects which are the turf of governors, mayors and other local government officials.
Casiño also stressed that lawmakers have no need for the PDAF.“[The PDAF] is not a necessity. [It was] institutionalized for the convenience of senators and congressmen. It should be abolished and then the lump sum will be part of the budget for other sectors, or the national budget will decrease,” he adds.
He claimed that PDAF monitoring were done in the past but failed. In their joint statement, the representatives under the Makabayan bloc also explained that “the pork barrel system is a form of institutionalized patronage and officially tolerated graft and corruption,” and that the current scam proves that is “beyond salvaging.” They argued that the most effective solution is to abolish the PDAF and eliminate the opportunities for corruption.
“Without the PDAF, legislators have to itemize their projects and have it subjected to the House’s approval. This will ensure transparency in budgeting. [Also], there would be less tools for the administration [to use for] manipulation,” he explained.
Over the years, the pork barrel has indeed evolved more as a political tool for acquiring and keeping power than as a fund to promote public welfare. And as lawmakers themselves can be expected to prevent the establishment of a stronger regulating system, complete transparency becomes an unattainable ideal.
Nograles, P.C., Lagman, E.C., Understanding the Pork Barrel
Center for People Empowerment in Governance
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