10:47 PM July 17th, 2013

By: Conrado de Quiros, July 17th, 2013 10:47 PM

During the last elections, only the senatorial candidates of Ang Kapatiran Party spoke out against it. They were Rizalito David, Marwil Llasos, and JC de los Reyes, and what they found execrable was the pork barrel. No other candidates, from left to right, did so.

“It’s the root of graft and corruption,” said Llasos. “Why don’t we just have a comprehensive system in responding to the development needs of the people? Why don’t we just put the fund in the General Appropriations Act instead of making it discretionary? We have the barangay development council, for instance. They know better, we don’t need a congressman or senator for that.”

None of the Kapatiran candidates won, of course, as was generally expected. Which is a pity because they made a lot of sense, particularly on this one. But what they were proposing need not end with their loss. They’ve raised an important issue which demands serious scrutiny today, several senators and congressmen having figured in the epic scam that Nancy Carvajal exposed in the Inquirer. Specifically, they funneled hundreds of millions of pesos from their Priority Development Assistance Fund, also called pork barrel—senators are given P200 million and congressmen P70 million every year—to ghost projects put up by a syndicate in exchange for hefty commissions.

So, should the pork be abolished once and for all? I add my voice to those who say yes.

In theory, it looks at least harmless and at most benign. The senators and congressmen do not themselves spend their funds, they only pinpoint priority projects which are implemented by the appropriate departments. Congressmen in particular being close to their constituencies are in a position to know what their constituents most need—roads, bridges, clinics, schools, various services. In any case, there’s the audit department to make sure the money is wisely, and rightly, spent.

But all that is only in theory. In practice, none of this deters the senators and congressmen from practically owning their pork barrel. In practice, having sole power to assign the funds as they please, they assign them to projects that please them and not their constituents. Indeed, the legislators do not confine themselves to merely identifying priorities but often take a hand in identifying contractors as well. As it is, simply being able to determine priorities is an awesome—and profitable—power in itself. A strange power given to people whose business is to make laws.

In fact, what the pork barrel amounts to is largesse. But it is largesse that also depends on Malacañang for distribution. The PDAF is a political weapon for Malacañang to keep Congress in line. It can be diminished, delayed or withheld entirely from uncooperative senators and congressmen and, conversely, augmented, expedited or pressed on them to vote for Malacañang’s agenda, good or bad. Once it is in their hands, the auditors do not look too closely on how they use it. Or they are persuaded not to. The auditors have a colorful history in that respect that dates back to the time of the Spanish governor-generals, routinely clearing them after their terms ended by partaking of their loot.

It was so in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s time, and it is so today. The pork barrel, says Dolores Español of Transparency International-Philippines, should never have been there. “It’s a waste of public funds. Instead of going to the sector for which it is intended, the money gets dissipated and the people do not benefit from it.”

In the context particularly of our political culture, it institutionalizes corruption. That culture—which is what entrenches corruption in this country—says public officials, elected or appointed, are entitled to largesse of some kind. That is rarely articulated but is generally understood and accepted, if only vaguely, if only instinctively. Nobody is really surprised that someone would spend a fortune to become city councilman or, as was an issue in recent weeks, a member of the Sangguniang Kabataan. People expect him to recoup his investment in some way. For senators and congressmen, the pork barrel is the direct and immediate return on investment.

What bolsters the idea that public officials are entitled to largesse or ROI is that we do not have a concept of taxpayers’ money. In theory, we have all sorts of statements, particularly when the Bureau of Internal Revenue is cajoling or threatening taxpayers to pay their taxes, that taxes belong to them, that taxes go to them. In practice, that is not believed, let alone internalized. If government returns part of the taxes in roads and bridges, we are grateful, it is a good government. If it does not, sorry na lang, but it’s their money, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Of course, not every senator or congressman plows his pork barrel in scams like the one Janet Lim-Napoles is accused of mounting. But that’s just a question of degree, that’s just a question of approach: Some are more garapal, some are subtler. Some are more bara-bara, some are more careful. But with the pork barrel being used by government as a mechanism for reward and punishment, with a culture that grants pork barrel the aspect of largesse or ROI (along with a loose conception of taxpayers’ money as people’s money), and with auditors not particularly caring to look closely at its use, expecting the pork barrel to benefit the country is like expecting Rodrigo Duterte to be jailed.

If you abolish the pork barrel, you will discourage people from running for senator and congressman? That will be its most salutary effect yet. Then it will leave the field to candidates like the ones from Kapatiran. Then it will open up the barrel to more than just a few snouts. It’s time we did.

It’s time we got rid of the cholesterol.

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