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No Free Lunch

Keep pork out of our diet

/ 05:07 AM February 12, 2019

Congress finally passed the 2019 government budget last week, with House of Representatives appropriations committee chair Rolando Andaya Jr. quoted as admitting that it allots substantial funds to congressmen and senators for their chosen projects. Based on reader mail I’ve received over the years, the congressional pork barrel ranks high among the features of our political system most detested by the public — along with wang – wangs, buildings and facilities marked with politicians’ names or initials, and billboards attributing government projects to politicians.

The pork barrel has always been subject to bitter debate since its institutionalization in 1990 as the Countrywide Development Fund, later renamed Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Apart from lump sum funds of which each senator and congressman gets a predetermined allocation, the term also refers to budget insertions designated by legislators as “congressional initiatives.” These now reportedly amount to at least P160 million each for congressmen and P3 billion each for senators. In 2010, the amounts allocated were far less than that, at P70 million and P200 million respectively.

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What’s wrong with giving legislators such control over budget funds? Critics argue that senators and congressmen are elected to enact laws, not to identify and implement projects, which are the responsibility of the executive branch. Based on this reasoning, the pork barrel has no place in a tripartite form of democratic government with distinct separation of powers, and legislators have no business involving themselves in particular projects. At best, the pork barrel is motivated by politicians’ desire to gain favor with their constituents, thereby raising their chances to get reelected; at worst, it is a way to siphon off large sums of money into the wrong pockets.

The other side argues that pork barrel finds its legal basis in the “power of the purse” bestowed on elected legislators by the Constitution. In theory, elected representatives of the people should know best how their hard-earned tax money should be spent. Thus, in our democratic system of government largely patterned after the American model, the “executive branch proposes while the legislative branch disposes” on the matter of budget allocation.

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In short, it is the legislature that should have the last word on spending our tax pesos. Perhaps the most-cited defense for the pork barrel is its “fine-tuning” role that makes possible appropriate budget responses to contingencies and local-level concerns that are unanticipated, overlooked or neglected in department- or agency-level budget programming work. There have, indeed, been a good number of uses of PDAF funds over the years that have been of wide benefit.

Our problem with the pork barrel lies in the wide gap between theory and reality in all aspects of its operationalization. In the ideal world, the following would be true: (1) Our representatives in Congress truly represent the will of their respective constituencies, whether defined geographically or sectorally; (2) They exercise good judgment on what serves the greatest good for the greatest number, whether in policymaking or budget allocation; (3) Policies, programs and projects they approve are consistent with a widely agreed development vision and strategic plan that includes a well-conceived public investment program; and (4) Implementing agencies in the executive branch could then be trusted to implement approved programs and projects efficiently and effectively.

The problem is that most of us probably believe all four statements to be false, under Philippine realities. (To be fair, though, they are not false all of the time; there are good exceptions out there.)

In the wake of the Napoles scam, most of us probably believe that the pork barrel has on balance been misused and abused too much, and has no place in our government budget. Moreover, the bulk of the pork has been loaded onto the budgets of agencies that have lately failed to demonstrate good absorptive capacity or effective implementation. So if you ask me, I’d rather keep pork out of our diet (that’s what they call their legislature in Japan).

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: 2019 national budget, budget insertions, Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, pork barrel, pork insertions, Rolando Andaya Jr.
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