The future of the barrels of porkBy Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas S. J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
In 1934, when the 1935 Constitution was being formulated, there was a proposal to prohibit “pork barrel” funds altogether. The sponsor of the proposal traced the name “pork barrel” to a degrading ritual in slavery days. At a fixed day and hour, a barrel stuffed with pork would be rolled out and a multitude of black slaves would cast their famished bodies into the porcine feast to assuage their hunger. The 1934 proposal was defeated and the pork barrel institution lived on.
In 1994, Congress deodorized the “pork barrel” and renamed it Countrywide Development Fund (CDF). It is now referred to as PDAF or the Priority Development Assistance Fund. The fund, as we all know it, means oodles and oodles of money placed more or less at the disposition of members of Congress and of the executive.
In 1996, the Inquirer ran an award-winning exposé of the pork barrel scam happening then. I don’t recall that we rallied against the scam. And even if we did, we also all know that members of Congress and of the executive department, like all of us, can sometimes resist everything except temptation. So we still are at it.
Can the Supreme Court do anything about it? In 1994, the Supreme Court was asked to put an end to the practice when the CDF in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) for that year was challenged on the ground that it was an encroachment by the legislature on the powers of the executive. The argument used against the fund was that, although appropriating money is the function of Congress, spending it is the prerogative of the executive department. The Court ruled in favor of the fund. It said that what the law allowed congressmen to do was simply to recommend projects. If the recommended projects qualified for funding under the CDF, it was the president who would implement them.
The Supreme Court crowned its decision with choice selections from the wisdom of the ages. I reproduce two paragraphs below because they are what have inspired Congress to build upon the CDF and to strengthen the participation of Congress in the distribution of national largesse. The Court said:
“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 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 hold 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 Fund 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 respective constituents and the priority to be given each project.”
I guess what the Court was saying was that “pork barrel,” human nature being what it is, is a necessary evil. Moreover, Congress, with the cooperation of the President, can always construct the “barrel design” in such a way that it can pass constitutional muster. And if you believe that the only thing members of Congress do under the design is recommend, indeed there is nothing constitutionally objectionable about that.
The “complexities, realities and politics of government” have once again overtaken Congress and the executive, and the President is being asked to deal with the Napoles scandal. It is perhaps the biggest challenge to the much-vaunted daang matuwid.
Actually, the CDF can be made to work within the “complexities, realities and politics of government.” I must say that I was impressed by what a congressman friend of mine did with his share of the CDF. Working hand in glove with local government officials, he made use of what was made available to him for improving the life of many people in his district. Projects he started survived beyond his tenure in the House of Representatives. No wonder that when he ran for his third term no one dared challenge him.
I am sure that there are others who have done well with their fund. On the other hand, I am also sure that there will always be those who have nothing to show for their share or who may not even know what ever happened to their share. But it was we who elected them to where they are.
Last Friday the President announced that there will be no more pork barrel fund. Instead, there will be a new scheme which basically will block the hands of the members of Congress from touching the fund once approved. It will be closely guarded by the President and his men and women. Call it any way you like—St. Peter’s coffers, perhaps—but the renamed pork will still be there mostly as identified by members of the House who, according to the 1994 decision of the Court, “are likely to be knowledgeable about the needs of their respective constituents.”
Are we just playing games to befuddle the public? The President is asking the public to have faith in him and his allies. After all, he is the boss. Will you give him that?
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