Practicing political patronage

The Supreme Court decision declaring unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund and similar arrangements paves the way for the radical restructuring of legislative-executive relations. Alas, it will not create a totally and permanently corrupt-free government.

Any human system devised to determine the deployment of limited resources will remain vulnerable to inefficiency, ineffectiveness and abuse: Because human beings are frail, fallible, and subject to temptation. But we can begin with initiatives to reduce the gravity and scale of corruption and the damage that it brings.

Neither will ending the pork barrel system eradicate the practice of political patronage. Not for as long as we maintain a democratic system anchored on the separation of governmental powers.

Patronage originally focused on the power to make appointments to an office. It expanded to include the authority to approve and to allocate resources. Patronage is both privilege and responsibility arising from authority.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches of government each has its own share of patronage powers, but must respect the areas of competence and authority of the others. As coequal institutions, they have to bargain among themselves.

The abbot of a monastery derives his authority from the professed commitment of the members, as a matter of religious faith, to subordinate their will to the monastic rules he administers. He does not need to court the favor of the monks.

Mao Zedong, at the peak of his powers, could impose his will on the population. Control of the communist party, the bureaucracy and the armed forces, dispensed with the need even to consult with other political leaders.

Business establishments address the needs of their clients by delivering products and services at prices that leave them a margin of profit. They invest resources on market incentives—discounts, rebates, “mileage” points—to gain the loyalty of their customers.

Voters do not vow obedience to the candidates they elect or to their appointees. Chosen leaders, mandated to get things done, must do so with only limited access to market incentives or to command-and-control powers. They must supplement whatever formal authority their titles confer with skill in the exercise of patronage.

The sources of leverage—military, financial or spiritual/ideological—are not mutually exclusive;  reliance on one approach renders it less efficient. Even the absolute tyrant will not want to rely only on whip and executioner. Corrupt politicians have tainted the practice of politics, but politics and, consequently, patronage operate in business, among not-for-profit organizations, in the churches.

Some reform groups demand that legislators restrict themselves to enacting laws and leave the budget allocation and spending alone. But arguably the most important law Congress must pass each year is the General Appropriations Act that authorizes the national budget.

Congress has the duty to review and approve the budgets proposed by the other branches of government and to monitor their use. This mandate gives legislators the window to press for their pet projects and to push for the appointment of favored protégés in the bureaucracy.

Why should not a congressman push the appointment of school principal or district engineer who enjoys his confidence? Assuming the candidate has the required credentials and expertise to deliver the expected results, why not? The pressure is problematic only when the nominee is clearly an inferior choice because of professional or ethical considerations.

The conflict between a Cabinet secretary and a legislator over projects is not necessarily a battle between good and evil. Resources and time constraints compel choices among objectively meritorious projects. Which deserves funding: a bridge or a university?

Different perspectives, arising from project timelines and constituency concerns, will understandably lead to conflicting preferences. Congressmen will want projects completed before their terms end. Cabinet secretaries may prefer projects expected to deliver national or regional benefits; the congressmen and their constituencies will favor projects that immediately benefit their districts.

Conflict over priorities becomes intractable, if the options remain restricted to just the bridge and the university. Expanding the discussion to cover more choices helps generate possibilities for accommodation. Secretary or legislator can yield ground on one issue, in return for assistance on some other problem, such as right-of-way for a road, land for a school building, or the redeployment of expert personnel.

Why should this kind of give-and-take be condemned as corrupt and corrupting “political patronage”? The problem is not the bargaining process, which takes place even between spouses and can yield more productive results. The problem is the object of the bargaining.

We are not talking here about collusion to cook the procurement process or to fix elections. The charges against the parties allegedly behind the Napoles scam to divert public funds into private bank accounts go beyond political patronage; they involve criminal conspiracy to plunder.

The public needs to distinguish between the two scenarios. And learn to elect politicians who understand the distinction and act accordingly.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ( is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.