Time to end a century of pork

Marvin A. Tort

Posted on August 07, 2013

CAN THE Philippines live without pork? The political kind, that is, and the type doled out by Malacañang yearly allegedly with greater priority to its friends and allies at the Senate and the House of Representatives. Not one Congress since the American colonial period has gone without it.

The “pork barrel” system, through which lawmakers determine the use of national money for local projects to benefit local constituents, was introduced locally by our American colonial masters. It was first institutionalized at the legislature during the time of the National Assembly, and has been in place for almost a century now.

A book, Party Politics in Southeast Asia: Clientelism and Electoral Competition in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, citing the local research of Gutierrez in 1998, detailed that the first pork barrel legislation in the country was the 1922 Public Works Act (or RA 3044) passed by the National Assembly.

From 1922 until 1949 (or three years after Philippine independence from the Americans in 1946), the pork barrel portion of the annual public works act came in the form of lump sum appropriation. But in 1950, a reform was introduced that allowed Congress to identify the projects to be funded by the pork barrel.

And then in 1955, another reform was introduced so that legislature-sponsored items of public works were completely segregated from all other items in the national budget. From 1956 until martial law, these pork barrel or “community” projects were further divided into congressmen’s local projects and senators’ “nationwide selected projects.”

The 228-page book, edited by Dirk Tomsa and Andreas Ufen and published by Routledge in 2012, also noted that the pork barrel legacy of “clientelistic politics” by lawmakers was modified only during the martial law years, as then President Ferdinand Marcos “centralized patronage” under his regime.

But with the restoration of a bicameral congress in 1987 under a new Constitution, the book noted, “the [old] practice of pork barrel was revived and was instrumental in mobilizing legislative and political support for the presidency” of then President Corazon Aquino.

During Cory Aquino’s watch, the “Countrywide Development Fund” or CDF was introduced in Congress in 1990 with an initial funding of 2.3 billion for lawmaker-sponsored projects in all congressional districts (almost 300) and national constituencies of 24 senators.

In 2000, or after 10 years as CDF, the pork barrel was renamed the Priority Development Assistance Fund. To date, under the proposed 2014 national budget, the pork barrel accounts for about 27 billion -- more than ten times the original amount of 2.3 billion in 1990.

A recent scandal reported regarding alleged misuse of over 10 billion in pork barrel funds is now prompting calls from some quarters for the scheme’s abolition. Resolutions have been filed at the Senate and the House calling for abolition. And arguments for and against have also been put forth.

At the Senate, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago is seeking the gradual phase-out of pork barrels starting next year until 2016, anticipating strong opposition against immediate and total abolition. In pushing for gradual abolition, she also said lawmakers “are expected to pass laws and exercise oversight functions over the Executive Department’s implementation of existing laws. We are not expected to build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects.”

At the House, seven party-list representatives -- out of nearly 300 congressmen -- have reportedly decided to give up nearly 1.5 billion in pork barrel funds available to them for the next three years. Of the annual PDAF, 200 million is allocated for each senator and 70 million for each House member.

President Aquino -- with his anti-corruption reform agenda -- does not seem inclined to give up pork, same with his ally and Liberal party mate House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr., who said that those critical of the PDAF should just give up their allocations instead of asking everybody else to do the same.

For Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao, “the remedy [to pork barrel corruption] is not to eliminate the fund but to tighten its disbursement,” while Isabela Rep. Rodito Albano said “the issue is not about its [porks’] existence but its misuse.” Valenzuela City Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo adds that those against the pork barrel should not deprive other districts of their allocation, while Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said the focus should not be on the pork barrel as far “larger and bigger funds have been left unchecked and [are] away from transparency and accountability.”

In my opinion, Sen. Santiago seems to make the most sense. Gradual phase-out is the middle ground, but phase-out just the same. And judging from the state of Philippine politics now, such a major reform may just prove to be the necessary catalyst for the march towards clean and responsible governance.

Admittedly, it is highly unrealistic to think that one can easily break lawmakers’ addiction to pork given that they have been benefitting from it for nearly a century now. Can sitting lawmakers actually be expected to just give up that which has kept them and their families in their places of privilege all these years?

But the legacy of patronage that went along with the introduction of the pork barrel in 1922 has done more than enough damage on Philippine governance. A gradual phase-out of PDAF may just be the critical but practical option to finally break the patronage stranglehold after 91 years.

Comments to matort@yahoo.com.