Pork’s dictatorial root
As we observe the 41st anniversary of the proclamation of martial law on Sept. 21, it is instructive to know that the detestable pork barrel had its origin in Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.
The pork barrel undermined the system of checks and balances of our democracy. It established the supremacy of the presidency over the legislature, which, along with the judiciary, is constitutionally designed to be coequal and independent. It thus served Marcos’ one-man rule superbly.
John Adams, political philosopher and second president of the United States, once said: “The Constitution was devised with an ingenious and intricate system of checks and balances to guard the people’s liberty against combinations of government. It structured the Executive, the Legislative and Judiciary separate and wholly independent … with safeguards to prevent usurpations of power. Only by balancing each against the other two could freedom be preserved.”
The pork barrel is a virtual bribe to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, to render them subservient to the president. Members of the House are each guaranteed a lump sum (the pork) from the national budget (the barrel), which they can spend in their own discretion by either directing it to a public purpose or diverting it to their private pockets.
Simply by withholding pork barrel sums to recalcitrant legislators, the president can whip them into line. Consequently, after every congressional election, the majority of elected members, regardless of party standing during the election, become instant turncoats by enlisting as members of the administration party to assure themselves of their lump of pork.
In other democratic societies, including the United States, there is no lump sum that is regularly allocated to each member of Congress. What pass there for congressional pork are “earmarks” of specific appropriations for projects in a particular congressional district or federal state.
Implementation is by the government agency identified in the budget. Assignment of the project to a nongovernment organization is not generally allowed pursuant to the democratic principle that public funds can only be disbursed by public agencies.
The first budget law of the Philippines was passed on Dec. 17, 1937, as Commonwealth Act No. 246. It took effect on Jan. 1, 1938. It provided for a line-item budget as the framework of the government’s budgeting system.
Thus, every projected government expense was listed in the budget, including sums for small bridges and schools, salaries of department heads and every clerk or janitor, and provisions for supplies of every government office or agency. This ensured public transparency. The public agency tasked with implementing the project had to follow strict auditing rules.
The budgetary system underwent a profound revision during Marcos’ dictatorship. Pursuant to his power to enact laws by decree, Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1177 titled “Revising the Budget Process in Order to Institutionalize the Budgetary Innovations of the New Society.” The decree also known as the “Budget Reform Act of 1977” revoked the budgetary system that had served our country for the previous 40 years.
Section 30 of PD 1177 provides: “The General Appropriation Act (GAA) shall be presented in the form of budgetary programs and projects for each agency of government, with the corresponding appropriations for each program and project … The [GAA] shall not contain any itemization of personal services ….” Thus, the itemization of government expenditures in the budget, which was the practice since Commonwealth days, was replaced with lump-sum appropriations. A citizen scrutinizing the budget to find out where his tax money goes would be negotiating a blind alley.
Under the postaudit system, only the Commission on Audit would know how the pork money is spent, but only after it is all gone and almost impossible to recover. Such was the P10-billion pork barrel fund siphoned to fake NGOs under the apparent direction of Janet Lim-Napoles.
Some of the lump-sum items are not only appropriated to legislators but also are allocated to the Office of the President. These are the billions of pesos in special purpose funds and in unprogrammed funds, all under the presidential discretion. Former national treasurer Leonor Briones has said that almost half of the 2013 budget is in lump sum.
But the lump sum is not the only loophole introduced by Marcos to sabotage Congress’ power of the purse. Section 31 of PD 1177 also placed outside of the reach of Congress the power of the state to borrow money, a means of raising revenues. It provided for the automatic appropriation of the payment of the public debt, guaranteeing debt obligations, private or public. PD 1967 gave the president the power to incur public loans, foreign and domestic. All these PDs have not been approved by people’s representatives, but only by one unelected man.
In the United States, service of the public debt has to be appropriated by Congress yearly. According to the national treasury, our public debt has grown to P5.3 trillion as of April 2013, comprising more than 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product and about two and a half times the sum of our national budget of more than P2.003 trillion for 2013.
Sadly and curiously, the provisions of Marcos’ PD 1177 were carried over in the Administrative Code of 1987, which was signed into law by President Corazon Aquino under Executive Order 292, based on her own transient dictatorial powers.
It is not only Congress that has been weakened as a dire legacy of martial law. The Supreme Court was emasculated when the president was given the sole power to appoint its members without congressional consent but only with the assent of the Judicial and Bar Council, numerically dominated by appointees of the president, in the 1987 Constitution. Under Marcos, all judges and justices were appointed by the president without the approval of Congress.
Thus, the checks and balances among the three branches of our government have been effectively undermined by unduly bolstering the power of the presidency above that of the two other branches. John Adams’ warning was ignored.
It is natural in a dictatorship to concentrate political power in the hands of the dictator. But it is fraudulent and nationally damaging for presidents and elected representatives of the people in a democracy to do the same.
It is time to bury the decrees of a dead dictator.
Manuel F. Almario ([email protected]) is a veteran journalist and spokesman of the Movement for Truth in History, Rizal’s Moth.
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