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Commentary

Politics as Business

/ 12:55 AM February 11, 2013

One of the biggest drawbacks to our economic development is the way our Congress allocates and distributes the “pork barrel,” now known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Contrary to the general perception, our pork barrel system is unique in the world. It amounts to an “entitlement” to all members of Congress for them to determine individually how the national funds are to be spent in their particular districts or constituencies.

The pork barrel is widely supposed to have originated in the US Congress. But the way it is practiced there is different from ours. In the US Congress, what passes for the pork barrel is called the “earmark.” It is an item for public works or special projects in the budget which is approved by the entire Congress. Both the House and the Senate have to approve the “earmark.” It eventually goes to the president for his approval as a part of the National Appropriations Act. Most other parliaments in the world do the same.

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Thus, if a US representative or senator wishes the government to fund a special project in his district or state from the federal budget, he lobbies the entire House or the entire Senate for the inclusion of the project in the federal budget. He must convince his colleagues that such a project is good for the country and not just for his locality. After all, the money comes from the national revenue contributed by all taxpayers, and not just by the representative’s or senator’s constituencies.

Under the PDAF, each senator is allocated a definite sum of P200 million and each representative P70 million. While it is true that formally their participation is only to determine the project on which the funds shall be spent, and the implementation and spending shall be done by the Department of Public Works and Highways or a government agency, in practice the individual representative or senator designates the contractor for the project. Here is the opportunity for kickback.

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But because of the relatively small sums involved for each district or for each senator, the PDAF is usually spent for minor or insignificant projects like barangay halls, waiting sheds, basketball courts, sports gymnasiums, scholarships for a few, dirt roads and small bridges “leading to nowhere.” Such projects are usually uneconomical and unproductive. So we often see unused waiting sheds, unkempt barangay halls sometimes used for drinking parties, easily eroded roads, broken bridges, and gyms with no equipment.

In totality, the PDAF represents a huge part of the national budget. If concentrated on big infrastructure projects like hydroelectric dams, farm-to-market roads, highways, railways, airports, seaports, power plants, educational facilities and well-equipped modern hospitals, it can contribute more substantially to regional and national development, and create employment on a large scale. What happens, however, is that the national funds are dissipated in small projects, resulting in a massive waste of government money.

This egregious practice is further compounded by the Internal Revenue Allocation (or IRA) to provinces, cities and municipalities. The IRA is their share from national funds allocated according to size of population and territory of provinces, cities and municipalities. It also includes their share from excise, mineral and other taxes collected by the national government in their localities. It is estimated that local governments base about 90 percent of their budget on the IRA.

Amounting to billions of pesos, the IRA is the pork barrel of the local officials. How it is spent is largely left to the discretion of the governors and city and municipal mayors, with the approval of their different boards. That is how the Ampatuans in Maguindanao became so rich after many terms in power, especially as they were able to intimidate their provincial boards and councils, as well as representatives of the Commission on Audit, to see nothing while they pocketed the funds.

The pork barrel, national and local, has attracted local and national economic oligarchs to public positions. Whereas before, the wealthy disdained the idea of running for Congress or for local positions, considering it a waste of their time which would be better used to making money, as they can pull the strings through political contributions, now they themselves enter politics, because politics is now business. There is now a proliferation of business oligarchs in the House of Representatives.

The PDAF is Filipino-style pork barrel in its most naked guise. Each member of Congress, including the President, can dip his/her fingers in the national revenue trough to fill his/her own pockets and those of his/her cronies and political supporters. This was not the case before, as what was practiced was similar to the US “earmark”—until in 1990, under Cory Aquino’s administration, the Eighth Congress adopted the present practice by instituting the Countryside Development Fund.

Manuel F. Almario is the spokesperson of the Movement for Truth in History. E-mail: mfalmario@yahoo.com

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TAGS: business, Commentary, congress, Manuel F. Almario, opinion, PDAF, politics, pork barrel, Priority Development Assistance Fund
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