Let’s keep our eye on the ball
It bears repeating again and again: Abolishing the Priority Development Assistance Fund and abolishing the pork barrel are not one and the same. The PDAF for 2014 may have been abolished, but the pork barrel is alive and well. All that hype about a piece of paper being circulated and signed by members of the House—whether or not it is a resolution is immaterial—to the effect that the PDAF should be abolished, accompanied by wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth by some legislators supposedly worried about the fate of the poor in their district, is just that: hype.
It bears repeating because it is so easy to confuse the two. I myself fell into that trap a couple of days ago, when I wrote, unthinkingly, that the fact that some legislators were signing the paper I mentioned earlier was a good sign. And I said it was a good sign because I equated the abolition of the PDAF with the scrapping of the pork barrel. I am happy to report that it was a temporary lapse, although I didn’t realize my error until it was too late to recall what I wrote.
Let’s keep our eye on the ball, or rather the pork barrel. And to do that, we have to keep in mind what a pork barrel is. Here’s the Oxford dictionary definition of it: “Noun, North American informal used in reference to the utilization of government funds for projects designed to please voters or legislators and win votes: the lesson that power is based on the pork barrel and purchased with patronage.”
What this tells us is that a pork barrel is essentially a creation for the benefit of the legislators. Talking about a presidential pork barrel is thus a bit of a stretch, and if I recall correctly, was initiated by past legislators to obfuscate the issue, or to divert attention from themselves. They were referring to, one may surmise, not only the so-called Special Purpose Fund which for 2014 amounts to P310 billion, of which the PDAF’s P25 billion is obviously only a small part. Not to mention the “off-budget” remittances from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (P2.6 billion), Malampaya (P26 billion), and the Motor Vehicle User Charges (P12 billion).
While these funds are definitely “vulnerable” (to use Liling Briones’ description) to presidential abuse, and should be subject to the strictest transparency and accountability standards (which do not seem to be applied at present), the fact remains that the chief executive is just that: the executor, the implementor.
And the role of the legislator is, guess what, to legislate. That the legislature has the power over the purse refers to the power to decide on the policy issues, and in any case it certainly does not, nor should it, refer to the power to set aside for themselves the kind of largesse that they have been receiving.
The argument that if the pork barrel is abolished, we might just as well abolish Congress with it, is certainly an attractive one. About eight years ago, I wrote that if Congress were to be abolished, the country would have direct savings of, at the time, roughly P25 billion (P5 billion in costs of operations, plus P20 billion in pork barrel) of government funds. Plus remove a source of corruption, plus be spared from the effects of irrational behavior that reduces rather than increases social well-being. And that was just for starters.
Who would legislate in their place? Well, I recall Dick Gordon’s suggestion that governors and mayors could meet every summer or every other summer for a couple of months to pass the laws that were needed. I also confess that at the time, I was hard put to come up with the disadvantages to us of abolishing Congress.
I was only half-joking when I made those comments. But if the basis of the argument was that removing the pork barrel would reduce to almost nil their chances for reelection, I would like to hold up to them the examples of their colleagues—like former senators Panfilo Lacson and Joker Arroyo, both of whom gave up their pork barrel but were still returned handily by the voters to the Senate. Or the example, more recently of Cavite Gov. JonVic Remulla, who forbade pork barrel allocations either for himself or his provincial board members: All of them, except for one, won reelection. Their performance spoke for themselves.
And for once, the legislators should think of the common good, rather than of their own private benefit. Only consider: Politicians lured by the profits from a pork barrel system would lose their incentives to run for office. In any case, they will no longer be in any position to buy votes or cheat in other ways (no payoff). A vicious cycle of buying votes and then using the pork barrel and other perks not only to replenish the coffers, build up the kitty, and enrich themselves so they can buy votes the next time, will be stopped in its tracks.
On the other hand, those who wish to run for office to serve the country, but either do not have the funds or refuse to buy votes and get into that vicious cycle, will now be able to run.
For once, we the people will win. And the country will win.
More than 10 years ago, in a privilege speech, Ping Lacson, after showing how less than 50 percent of pork barrel funds actually went to the people they were supposed to help, urged his colleagues: It is time to bring the pork barrel system down. Or we will all go under. We can surely live without pork. Certainly, there is life without it.
I have had my differences with Ping Lacson. But here I agree with him wholeheartedly. So, abolish the pork barrel. In all its incarnations.