Among the issues President Aquino failed to discuss in his fourth State of the Nation Address was the one thing the nation was talking about: the P10-billion pork barrel scandal. A word or two from the President about the state of the ongoing investigation, perhaps in the same way he commented on the ongoing investigation into the Ozamiz Gang extrajudicial killings, would have been a welcome intervention. That he didn’t say a word points to the real scandal: the perpetuation of the congressional pork barrel system itself, which is prone to corruption.
We should restate that. The pork barrel is an invitation to corruption.
There are examples of pork barrel funds being put to good use: school buildings built for much less than standard government rates; highways and farm-to-market roads completed under budget and in full; bridges that actually lead somewhere. And lawmakers with unmanufactured receipts.
But consider the idea itself: Senators have P200 million every year, or P1.2 billion per term, at their disposal. In the House of Representatives, congressmen can look forward to as much as P70 million every year, or P210 million per three-year term.
Although there are safeguards in place, and even arguing that those safeguards work as designed, the notion that winning candidates for Congress have hundreds of millions of pesos to dispose of is unsettling, and even counterdemocratic.
We realize that there is a ready counterargument for this: Isn’t involving hundreds of lawmakers in the task of spending government funds an exercise in democracy? But in reality the pool of politicians who can win a seat in Congress is very limited indeed.
The main reason is financial: Except for the occasional maverick, one needs millions of pesos to mount a successful campaign for Congress. How will that investment be recovered? Through the use of the pork barrel system.
Is it any wonder that at least five senators and over a score of congressmen have been alleged to be both clients and beneficiaries of businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles’ elaborate scheme? And those are only the ones the six whistle-blowers have implicated. Almost any of us who has an interest in politics has heard of lawmakers expecting or receiving commissions from public works projects. The number, in other words, almost certainly goes much higher.
The proposed budget for the next year includes some P27 billion in pork barrel monies, classified under the Priority Development Assistance Fund. To be sure, this is only about one percent of the entire budget.
And Budget Secretary Florencio Abad has vowed to make the process even more transparent. “Unlike in the past when only the ‘soft’ portion was in the budget and the ‘hard’ portion was tucked in” in government agencies, the new budget proposal shows the “whole and complete PDAF,” he said. “The P27-billion PDAF is provided and that is a special line item for PDAF in this budget.”
We also note that Malacañang is mulling new measures to make sure that every use of the pork barrel meets the strictest criteria and the country’s true needs. There is a plan, for example, for the Department of Social Welfare and Development to scrutinize nongovernment organizations implementing PDAF projects.
“We are still in the process of determining whether our role will be limited only to registration or expanded to include accreditation and licensing [of the NGOs],” Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman told the Inquirer.
Unfortunately, all this strikes us as a valiant but ultimately vain attempt to plug all the holes in the PDAF dike. The entire structure is designed to leak.