Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Stench of Pork Barrel Politics

The recent talks these days, edging out debates among lawmakers over what to do with pork barrel funds disguised as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), reminds me of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He said: Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridge even where there is no river. In a way, the same can be said of our very own politicians in general. But Khrushchev’s apt description is quite inaccurate when applied to our honorable congressmen; in a unique way, lawmakers in this country exhibit some sort of edifice complex, a pejorative term once attributed to former First Lady Imelda Marcos. In this part of the globe, lawmakers strive to make good of their promises. They feign generosity to their constituents through pork funds to cover up their lackluster performance in law-making and parliamentary debates.

As promised, policymakers in this country are rather preoccupied with the construction of bridges, roads, waiting sheds, and health centers; the only problem though is that these public works projects are─ substandard. Because our lawmakers visualize themselves as pseudo-DPWH, they utilize pork funds to support pet projects, mostly public works, to impress upon their constituents that they have done well with their fund. But beneath all this, lawmakers wallow in a grand conspiracy to deceive the public. These rent-seeking vultures are more concerned with paperless deals that would put them in a better light come election time. But the stench of institutionalized corruption is hard to contain. It stinks. And most Filipinos are not unaware of the fact that pork barrel is a source of evil.

The scenario is all too familiar: Mr. Congressman identifies his pet projects for his district. The pork fund is channeled through the implementing agency, say DPWH, to execute the public works project. Next is the bidding process. Studies show, and rightly so, that PDAF projects normally attracts just one bidder for each of the competitive tenders conducted by the implementing agency. Consequently, with no real competition in the bidding process, your mighty Congressman exerts influence in the selection of contractors to carry out PDAF-funded projects. The favored contractor, the one tasked to undertake the project, is obligated to hand over at least 30-50 percent rebates of the pork fund, known as kick back or cuts, to your honorable congressman. 30 percent goes to the contractor, the remainder, or 20 percent of the Fund would now go to the cost of the project. This is why most public works projects are substandard, and are in need of continuous repairs despite hefty allocations ostensibly given to them. Worse, in between these projects, lawmakers would get to flaunt their names and vapid faces on project tarps to make sure that constituents would praise their hallowed names to high heavens during elections. Now, whether the pork barrel funds go to the deep pockets of politicians, LGUs, and bogus NGOs the underlying purpose is the same: It’s all for the money. What nerve, what conceit!

The term "pork barrel” is of American etymology. History has it that during the pre-American Civil War, black slaves were traditionally provided with barrels of salted pork as gift, mostly left over food, on holidays. The slaves would grapple frantically, fighting like pigs over barrels of food like it was manna descended from heaven. But the slavery days are long gone. Yet, a new form of servility had emerged in Philippine politics at the inception of the Commonwealth era.

The pork barrel system landed on our shores courtesy of the Americans whose concept of government greatly inspired and influenced the framers of the 1935 Philippine Constitution. It was through the 1934 Constitutional Convention when “discretionary funds” officially saw the light of day in Philippine politics. There was a clamor against it but it did not receive much public attention. Briefly, the proposal to scrap “pork barrel” in the Constitutional Convention was defeated without much debate. I surmise corruption in those days were not as brazen as it is now. From then on, the pork barrel system has become a tradition, a way of life for most politicians. The thrust of pork barrel system signaled the entry of feudal patronage that would greatly define the relationship between two co-equal branches of government.

As defined by PDAF Watch, a civil society organization, pork barrel funds are those allocated to politicians such as congresspersons and senators, to be used, based on their decision to fund programs or projects in their districts. We could use a much technical definition but this will do for this staid article. In reality, pork barrel is a spoiling incentive used by the President to gain political support in both houses of Congress. In return, he gets to have his wishes done, warts and all.

Under the principle of separation of powers, the Constitution distributed the powers of government among its three distinct departments, each superior in its own sphere-- the legislative makes laws, the executive implements it, and the judiciary interprets the law. But the separation is not absolute. There are instances when these powers blend with each other owing to its corollary mechanism of checks and balances. In essence, the Constitution bestowed upon Congress the power of appropriation subject only to the veto power of the President. But the President is not totally out of the picture. He prepares the budget then proposes it to Congress. In turn, Congress has the final say on what to do with the budget proposal prepared by the President before money from the treasury can be released. So far, this is how our government works. One department cannot act with finality without the approval or participation of other departments. In this way, at least in theory, separation of powers enables the three great branches to check each other thereby preventing concentration of powers that might result to tyranny.

There is, however, a flipside to it. The principle of separation of powers was never intended to promote efficiency. The price of interdependence among the great departments, while notable for its purpose, exacts a high price that could create an impasse in the workings of the government. Needless to say, political compromises are often the result of executive-legislative gridlocks especially when their personal interests transcend constitutional boundaries. It is my view that even if the theory of separation of powers rests on the premise that tyranny can be avoided by allocating distinct powers among the three departments, the same line of argument is no guarantee against determined despots. What if the holders of powers decide to band themselves together in a grand conspiracy to something that is oppressive like the infamous pork barrel system?

Before me is copy of a 1994 Supreme Court decision (PHILCONSA v. Enriquez, G.R.No.113105, August 19, 1994) on the constitutionality of pork barrel funds. This was during the Ramos administration. The challenge centered on the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) in the General Appropriation Act of 1994 which petitioners claim to be an encroachment by the legislature on executive power. Petitioners were of the view that the proposal and identification of projects do not involve the power of appropriation but relates to the power of spending which is the prerogative of the executive. The Court ruled in the negative. In ruling in favor of CDF, the Court held that the law merely allowed congressmen to recommend projects. If the proposed projects qualified for funding under the CDF, execution or implementation is lodged on the president. Beyond the legal gobbledygook, the Supreme Court took notice of the realities concomitant to the dynamics of executive-legislative politics in its mutual quest to serve the needs of the people. The Court, through the pen of Mr. Justice Camilo Quiason, said in part:

The Constitution is a framework of a workable government and its interpretation must take into account the complexities, realities and politics attendant to the operation of the political branches of the government. Prior to the GAA of 1991, there was an uneven allocation of appropriations for the constituents of the members of Congress, with the members close to the Congressional leadership or who holds cards for “horse-trading,” getting more than their less favored colleagues. The members of Congress also had to reckon with an unsympathetic President who could exercise his veto power to cancel from the appropriation bill a pet project of a Representative or Senator.

The Countrywide Development Funds attempts to make equal the unequal. It is also a recognition that individual members of Congress, far more than the President and their congressional colleagues are likely to be knowledgeable about the needs of their constituents and the priority given each project.

Essentially, this is how the dynamics of executive-legislative work: legislation is the exclusive domain of Congress, but the Constitution does not prohibit the president to introduce legislation through party lines in the legislature. Because party-principles in Philippine politics are subservient to personal interests or patronage network, alliances and coalitions usually appear like mushrooms, frantically aligning themselves to the central leadership of the ruling party. What made them tow the line? The 1987 Constitution provides as with a simple answer: Discretionary funds appropriated for a particular official shall be disbursed only for public purposes to be supported by appropriate vouchers and subject to such guidelines as may be prescribed by law. Discretionary funds had evolved in various names hoping to dispel the negative connotation of the term. But whether you call it as Discretionary Fund or Countrywide Development Fund or Priority Development Assistance Development Fund still, the stench of a sullen past exudes a venal odor of anomaly—it institutionalizes patronage politics. “In the Philippines”, as one American legislator observed, “all politics is local.” Congressional power depends largely at the local level. Members of the House of Representative are elected by legislative districts where patronage politics is at its all time high. Thus politicians, especially the incumbents, have an immense advantage in protecting local networks through their control of pork barrel, and they will do almost anything to preserve the system of corruption. Senators, on the other hand, although elected at large had their fair share of a systematize distribution of spoils. Except for some lawmakers who eschewed their pork barrel allocations, most senators had funneled their shares on the basis of specific geographic vote-rich districts. Most of these areas or political districts are highly urbanized cities and provinces with dense population obviously with high voter’s turnout every election. In the end, all things being equal, the pork barrel system hardly benefits the people in terms of goods and services. Instead, the pork barrel system has further cemented the hold of political dynasties and money politics in local fiefdoms.

What then does all of this come down to? You have a Supreme Court that says pork barrel is a necessary evil that seeks to equal the unequal distribution of spoiling incentives for legislators regardless of party politics. A President who pledges to leave a legacy of matuwid na daan by curbing corruption in the system and yet tolerates the pernicious practice of pork barrel politics to political allies. Congress, on the other hand, supposedly an institution for policymakers, has transmuted itself into an open sanctuary for lawmakers who prioritized kickbacks, corruption, patronage politics and wasteful spending of taxpayer’s money. I thus sympathize with those who find pork barrel politics appalling. What makes the spectacle more disgraceful is that almost every election, voters elect the same kinds of buffoons in public office which only signifies that they have shamelessly consented to patronage politics without token resistance. What a pity, what a shame.

I support the call to junk PDAF altogether. Lawmakers are supposed to make laws, repeal laws, and alter laws. That is their primary duty as enshrined in the Constitution. Public works implementation ostensibly through PDAF, is an executive function. Notwithstanding the 1994 ruling of the Supreme Court, I submit that the pork barrel system runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution when it reminded us that public office is a public trust. It also frontally violates the time-honored principle of separation of powers by sneaking loopholes through the backdoor, masquerading PDAF-funded projects as executive function when in fact lawmakers have taken responsibility over project implementation more than passing laws. One of the lessons I learned in construing provisions of the Constitution is the rule which says, “What cannot be legally done directly cannot be done indirectly.” I think the rule finds application, one way or another, with the pork barrel funds in relation to constitutional proscriptions. But more that the legality of PDAF, it takes a strong leadership to eradicate corruption. The President, as one commentator opined, can easily abolish pork barrel by not including in its budgetary proposals. Congress, by way of tradition and under the 1987 Constitution, cannot add anything outside the specified budget recommended by the President, the most that they can do is to decrease the figures. Now it is up to P-Noy’s “Matuwid na daan,” to walk its talk. Or has P-Noy succumbed to the dynamics of executive-legislative politics over principles?

Note: The ruling in Philconsa concerning the constitutionality of CDF, was reiterated in SC Resolution titled, ANDRES SARMIENTO et al. vs. THE TREASURER OF THE PHILIPPINES et al, [G.R. No. 125680 & 126313.September 4, 2001]. For reference see link:

Online Sources:

The Flow of Pork by Karol Ilagan see:

Pork Barrel, Philippine Politics and the Economy by Adrian M. Tamayo see:

PHILCONSA v. Enriquez see: