10:01 PM September 9th, 2013

By: Cielito F. Habito, September 9th, 2013 10:01 PM

What would life without the legislators’ pork barrel be like? In the current discussions about the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)—the latest (and now supposedly abolished) form of our lawmakers’ pork barrel—the question keeps cropping up: What do we replace it with? But many question the question itself. Should we even replace the PDAF at all? Should legislators be involved in identifying if not implementing government projects, in the first place, when that is the role of the executive branch? Shouldn’t lawmakers be limited to just that: making laws?

Is there any redeeming value in the pork barrel? Earlier, the President justified the PDAF as the mechanism that “enables your representatives to identify projects for your communities that your local government unit cannot afford.” Two important points are implicit in this reasoning. First, it presupposes that our representatives in Congress are well-equipped to identify appropriate projects for our communities. But mechanisms are in place to do this without having someone “play God” and claim to know what is most needed within and across our communities. Regional Development Councils (RDCs) and local development councils (LDCs) at the provincial, city, municipal and barangay levels are mandated by law to undertake this function, with the benefit of citizen participation through nongovernment representatives. No politician can be better placed than these collegial bodies to determine how best to use taxpayers’ money to meet priority needs at the local level.

The second point in the President’s PDAF rationale is that meeting local development needs requires resources beyond what local government units (LGUs) can afford with their internal revenue allotments (IRA) and whatever local revenues they could raise. This is a tacit acceptance that most LGUs do not have enough resources for their needs, and that additional support through the national budget is warranted. But do legislators need to be involved in this at all? Other than legislators themselves, few would probably answer in the affirmative.

As I wrote recently, the only viable argument to be made for the pork barrel is a political one: The power to release or withhold pork barrel allotments gives the executive strong leverage in dealing with Congress. For a bad president with ulterior motives, this can be a dangerous weapon. For a good president needing legislative support for positive reforms, this can be a useful instrument for positive change in the face of an otherwise uncooperative Congress. But even this argument does not sit well with most responsible citizens. Must we bribe congressmen and senators with pork barrel releases to obtain support for legislation that would ultimately redound to the greatest good for the greatest number? Surely, there must be other, less morally objectionable ways to gain lawmakers’ support for sound legislation.

One such alternative mechanism that appears not to have been used enough by the current government, at least so far, is the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac). Established by Republic Act 7640 signed by President Fidel V. Ramos into law on Dec. 9, 1992, the Ledac aimed to provide a venue for achieving a coordinated legislative agenda between the executive and legislative branches. I must confess to having a soft spot for the Ledac as I led the National Economic and Development Authority in shepherding the Ramos administration’s efforts to have the 9th Congress enact it into being. Even as the law only prescribed quarterly meetings, Ramos convened the Ledac almost weekly, averaging 30-35 meetings a year, and had 229 structural/reform laws enacted under his presidency to show for it. In contrast, the Ledac met only two times under President Estrada, while President Arroyo reportedly convened it twice a year on average.

In the ideal world, our senators and congressmen would focus on making laws, proving their worth to their electoral constituents by the enacted laws that they author, coauthor or support, and the positions they take on key legislative issues. Sans the prospect of hundreds of millions of pesos in pork barrel funds, candidates with less than noble intentions would have little reason to “invest” huge sums to campaign for these positions. Truly worthy but less endowed candidates are then more likely to run and succeed. We would have a legislature marked by statesmen and stateswomen truly worthy of their “Honorable” appellation. The president and his/her Cabinet would be in close coordination with and have the support of Congress on a consensus policy reform agenda, facilitated by frequent meetings of the Ledac.

In this same ideal world, national and local budgets would be drawn up with the direct participation of citizens and communities affected by the programs and projects funded therein. RDCs and LDCs would play meaningful roles in the governance of their communities, including in project identification and budget allocation. Governors and mayors would be recognized and rewarded for convening and mobilizing their LDCs, while nonperforming and errant ones are appropriately sanctioned by an effective and professionally run Department of Interior and Local Government. Meanwhile, regional and local arms of sectoral line agencies would respond adequately to basic needs of communities, rendering queues of needy constituents at governors’ and mayors’ offices a thing of the past.

Much more is required to achieve this dream world, to be sure. But many share the belief that eliminating the pork barrel is a big bold step that would make it easier for the other elements to fall into place.

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