It’s the system, stupid!

Calixto V. Chikiamco

Posted on October 07, 2013

WILL abolishing the pork barrel remove graft and corruption in government? Will it, in actuality, be even abolished?

The answer is no. We know that the “pork barrel” in the form of the Priority Development Funds (PDAF) already existed in a previous life as “Countrywide Development Funds.” Different name, same substance, same shameless greed. There’s also a new beast, which recently surfaced, called DAP or Disbursement Acceleration Program, ostensibly to accelerate economic growth but whose spending is at the discretion of certain favored legislators. Pork, by any other name. Then, there are the congressional insertions, which former Senator Panfilo Lacson says is bigger and more prone to abuse than the PDAF.

Just as banning politicians from running again beyond specific terms, or term limits, didn’t eliminate political dynasties, removing the pork barrel isn’t going to make it go away. The system is corrupt and demands it. The PDAF and its variants will be resurrected in some form, when the public’s anger has been mollified or some entertainment scandal diverts the public attention. And if there’s another outcry, the President can always say “So, impeach me.” What then?

The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is no panacea, contrary to the claim of its adherents. If the FOI bill becomes law, will public officials suddenly become transparent and share information with the public? They can always conjure some excuse not to give or delay giving the information, especially if, as the Napoles scam revealed, significant parts of the bureaucracy are part of the conspiracy. It will end up like RA 9485 or the Anti-Red Tape Act, good on paper, but nobody follows it.

To address the roots of the pork barrel controversy, not only should the pork barrel and its variants be scrapped, but political reforms must also be undertaken by: a.) establishing a genuine political party system; b.) the state financing of political parties and electoral campaigns; and, c.) re-establishing Congress’s power of the purse through the Budget Impoundment and Control Bill. All of these -- a genuine political party system, state financing of political parties and electoral campaigns, and clear separation of powers -- are principal features of modern democracies. We don’t have any of that, and that’s why the system is so corrupt and the incentive is to keep on creating variants of the pork barrel.

A genuine political party system will help curb corruption and improve governance on several fronts: First, it will increase public accountability. How can voters punish the ones who supported the corrupt Arroyo government under KAMPI and Lakas when its members just switched to the Liberal Party and other pro-Aquino parties, helped along by the gravy that the incumbent president doles out?

Second, a genuine political party system can help raise funds legally through public contributions or through state funding, unlike in the present system where individual politicians have to rely on their own devices to fund increasingly expensive political campaigns.

Third, it can help train politicians to be “leaders in waiting” and helps solve the “collective action” problem of the political class. The lack of genuine political parties in which politicians can be trained and seasoned is one reason the President has to rely on a small coterie of kaklase, kabarkada, and kabarilan (classmates, friends and fellow gun-lovers) Genuine political parties can bring policy stability, especially in the economic area, unlike now where factional, family, and personal interests drive policy. Currently, lawmakers have to be “bribed” with incentives such as the DAP to support policies and this not only corrupts the system, but also intensifies policy instability because money, rather than merits, dictates the outcome.

As for state financing for political parties and electoral campaigns, we need it because modern political campaigns have become increasingly expensive, especially in a presidential system. What fool will spend, say P100 million from his own pocket for a congressional campaign, without any expectation of return?

Banning the pork barrel doesn’t mean that legislators will have no way to get their money back, The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has exposed, after analyzing the Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures submitted by candidates and their parties to the Commission on Election, that some of the biggest donors to the May 2013 election campaign were public works contractors with pending government contracts and officials from regulated industries like public utilities, mining, ports, and gambling. They’re all covered by a list of prohibited donors under the law. This means that the people’s money can be stolen via overpriced contracts or decisions that favor these regulated industries at the public expense.

If legislative pork is to be abolished, presidential pork has to go as well, because if it doesn’t, it will only worsen the situation where Congress doesn’t really have the power of the purse, but the Office of the President does. This imbalance between the Executive and the Legislative over fiscal matters is at the root of all evils and a violation of the separate but equal principle in the Constitution. This is the why the Legislature couldn’t act as a check to the abuses of former President Arroyo and why congressmen switch willy-nilly to whoever is the party in power.

The Malampaya Fund, the Presidential Social Fund, the funds of Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office should all revert to the general fund and its releases subject to scrutiny by Congress. Moreover, the Budget Impoundment and Control bill, proposed by no less than President Aquino when he was senator, should be passed, to stop the president from exercising his unchecked powers to impound or “the refusal of the President, for whatever reason, to release funds appropriated by Congress.” In other words, all appropriations in the national budget should automatically be released in accordance with the purposes authorized by Congress, and if the President refuses to release it for whatever reason, he has to go back to Congress for review and approval.

It’s the Budget Impoundment and Control Bill, not the FOI, that’s key to bringing sanity back to the system and preventing the Executive branch from bribing Congressmen to do its bidding. Ideas and policies, not money and bribery, then will govern the President’s relations with Congress.

Scrap the pork barrel, but change the system.