Get Real

Pork barrel: costs and benefits


01:08 AM July 20th, 2013

By: Solita Collas-Monsod, July 20th, 2013 01:08 AM

Institutionalized corruption. Grand conspiracy to steal taxpayers’ money. Trapo at its lowest point. That’s the pork barrel system in the Philippines. And it continues to flourish, in spite of the fact that its costs are much greater than its benefits. Why? Simply because those who benefit are the ones who decide whether the system should continue or not.

Let’s define “pork” first, and then let’s take a quick look at its history (we got it from the United States), courtesy of the Internet.

Definitions of the pork in pork barrel, which apparently originated in the US Congress:

• A bill or project requiring considerable government spending in a locality to the benefit of the legislator’s constituents.

• A government appropriation, bill, or policy that supplies funds for local improvements designed to ingratiate legislators with their constituents.

• The act of using government funds on local projects that are primarily used to bring more money to a specific representative’s district. Basically, the politician tries to benefit his/her constituents in order to maintain their support and vote.

The first pork project in the United States—federal funds were appropriated for the benefit of a locality—was $1,500 to complete a lighthouse in what was then Massachusetts (with the backing of President George Washington). It was not a unanimously approved project, and the use of federal (national) money for local benefit was looked at askance by some of the greatest American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson.

While the US Congress was torn “between those who pursue pork and those who resist it,” the latter view prevailed until a “turning point” was reached in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, after which the number and value of pork projects increased astronomically.

Here is what an American NGO, the Citizens Against Government Waste, says about the pork barrel system in the United States at present: “Cases of out-and-out bribery are rare. But pork-barrel spending is a form of corruption, where tax dollars are dolled (sic) out on the basis of political favoritism and to advance the careers of Washington insiders.”

Is this also the case in the Philippine pork barrel system? Only in the sense that a jeepney and a Porsche are both motor vehicles.

Because, as has been made even more obvious by the present scandal, cases of out-and-out bribery are not the exception, but more the rule, in the Philippines. Our legislators have constantly repeated that they never handle any of the money involved in the projects, and just choose the projects, which choices are limited to a list of projects that “qualify” or are acceptable by guidelines set up by the Department of Budget and Management. A list, by the way, that is as broad as all outdoors: livelihood, manpower, sports, and cooperative development, delivery of basic services, environmental protection, agricultural and fisheries diversity, rural industrialization, development of local enterprises, social services in areas that would not be ordinarily undertaken by the private sector, and construction, maintenance, operations and management of infrastructure projects. Good grief.

So how do crooked legislators get their hands on the money, aside from the ghost projects supposedly undertaken in the P10-billion scam? It takes a little more effort, but only just a little: The legislators reportedly tell the government agency involved who they want as contractors or project implementers.  How the government agency translates that order into reality when there are bids and awards committees to safeguard procedures is another thing altogether.  But one can see the elements of conspiracy—the legislator, the government agency, and the contractor acting in collusion. The legislator reportedly gets his cut from the contractor. Clean hands. Reminds me of a former Chief Executive who swears that he never stole a single centavo from the government. He forgets that he was receiving all kinds of goodies from friends with government contracts.

Moreover, in the Philippines, while the big guns get the lion’s share of the pork, legislators don’t have to fight over it. The division is institutionalized: at least P70 million worth of pork a year for a House legislator, and P200 million a year for a senator of the republic.

And worst of all (if the current scam is any indication), the pork may not even help the local constituents; it stops in the legislators’ pockets and those of their private-sector coconspirators, with the active help or benign neglect of the government agencies and the Commission on Audit.

In sum, what are the benefits of the pork barrel system in the Philippines? One, it gives the executive branch tremendous leverage over the legislature, which is supposed to provide checks and balances (the executive branch can withhold the pork). Two, it gives incumbent legislators an unfair advantage over their electoral opponents, because of the projects (if successfully implemented) they bring, or the money (if pocketed) they can use to buy votes. And what are the costs? At least P21 billion a year of taxpayers’ money that arguably could have been more efficiently and equitably used for the welfare of the Filipino people.

Notice, Reader, that the benefits accrue to individuals; the costs are borne by society. The “servants” of the people screw their bosses with impunity.

And do not tax my patience by saying that not all legislators are involved. True. But they haven’t done a thing about it either. All it takes for evil to triumph….

Abolish the pork barrel.

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