No ifs, ands, or buts about it: The people’s march today, with Rizal Park in Manila as only one of several focal points across the country, is fueled by a driving sense of outrage. Disgusted by living proof of systemic corruption in the congressional pork barrel, hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets to demand an end to the pork barrel system.
The outrage remains, though somewhat muted by President Aquino’s unexpected declaration last Friday that it was, in fact, time to abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF.
How should we make sense of the President’s initiative? To answer that question, we need to remind ourselves how we got to this pass in the first place.
First: The corruption at the heart of the congressional pork barrel system found a face, a symbol, in the person of businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles. The allegations against her, detailed primarily in a series of affidavits executed by former employees or former members of her inner circle, describe a scam designed cynically to game the system: Legislators who could not directly pocket their pork barrel allocations coursed the funds through Napoles’ alleged network of fake nongovernment organizations and fake projects. The money then came back to the lawmakers, with a generous share reserved for the network operator. The PDAF, in short, had become a giant money laundering operation in reverse: It was used to turn good money into bad.
Second: The Commission on Audit’s special audit report for 2007 to 2009 found that the scheme Napoles was alleged to have perpetrated was not an isolated case, but an instance, a symbol, of the massive abuse of the pork barrel system. The COA identified at least 10 NGOs associated with Napoles that were involved in PDAF projects worth a total of over P2 billion; but the agency also named over 70 other NGOs with questionable transactions, with a combined value of twice the alleged Napoles haul in that same three-year period. The same types of fakery were used: the manufacture of entities, the forgery of signatures, the fabrication of receipts, among many others. The COA report found dirty linen—some of it aired very much in public, almost hidden in plain sight—that proved that very many lawmakers were involved in the pork barrel’s money laundering operation.
Kahindik-hindik. The allegations against Napoles and the findings of the COA were—to use COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan’s choice adjective—horrifying. What made them worse were the inadvertent disclosures about the ostentatious consumption of some of Napoles’ family members; these deepened popular disgust over a pork barrel system that (in the eyes of many) went only to fund such lavish lifestyles.
The reforms announced by the President, then, are welcome to the extent they address the findings of both the special COA report and the many stories about Napoles. Beginning with next year’s budget, the use of NGOs as conduits of government funds will be discontinued. The so-called “soft” projects, such as fertilizers or false teeth, will not be allowed anymore. The usual recourse to quickie public works projects, such as re-asphalting, will no longer be available. There are still other reforms that will be put in place, designed to make legislative participation in government-funded projects as clean and efficient as possible.
But should lawmakers be involved in these projects in the first place? President Aquino has identified the wide latitude of discretion given to legislators in “prioritizing” pork barrel allocations as the source of corruption. Under his new scheme, the latitude may have narrowed down—but it is still there. Why not remove it altogether?
Congress has a vital role to play in the crafting of the budget; some lawmakers may be so adept at parliamentary protocols they can manage to find funding for pet projects inserted into the General Appropriations Act. But in our chosen political system, it is the executive that spends the money, with Congress acting as a check and balance. What the Napoles stories and the COA report tell us is that, when it comes to the pork barrel, our lawmakers do not exercise their check-and-balance function; rather, they feel themselves entitled to their yearly pound of fiscal flesh.
All wrong. We hope the President would take the next necessary step, and abolish not merely the PDAF, but the pork barrel itself.