Pork hungry

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 7, 2013 - 12:00am

For the same reason that President Aquino is adamantly opposed to Charter change, he is reportedly also against the abolition of the congressional pork barrel: he knows lawmakers too well.

The lump-sum Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF, the official term for the pork barrel, is the principal way that Malacañang can legitimately influence congressional work. The crude, questionable way is by directly handing out bundles of cash in brown paper bags at the Palace, with each bag containing a minimum of six figures. But this system is supposed to have no place in the daang matuwid administration.

P-Noy’s budget chief Florencio Abad knows the system well, having been a former congressman himself representing bucolic Batanes. By tweaking the system of preparing budget proposals, Abad has introduced a bit of transparency into the process, although it’s still not enough.

A system of incentives using PDAF releases can also inspire lawmakers to go along with the development thrusts of the administration. Malacañang, for example, may want more schools or health centers built using the PDAF. Lawmakers who go along will see the funding for the projects released faster than for the earmarks of their uncooperative colleagues.

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We inherited the pork barrel system from the Americans. No money actually passes through the hands of lawmakers. Instead they are allotted a set amount that can be disbursed for their pet projects, programs and causes.

The implementing entities can be agencies of the executive branch or non-government organizations. Left-leaning lawmakers have been suspected of funneling their PDAF to communist rebels through NGOs.

Officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways, for their part, have long groused about lawmakers imposing contractors that do not meet DPWH criteria for PDAF earmarked projects. These contractors are sources of fat commissions for corrupt lawmakers.

Complaints about the misuse of the pork barrel are not new. Voluminous investigative reports and books have been written about them over the years. I don’t remember anyone ever being penalized for using the pork barrel to build roads and other infrastructure that benefit mainly the businesses of lawmakers’ spouses, other relatives to the nth degree, mistresses and cronies.

Defenders of the pork barrel point out that it prevents an administration or ruling party from imposing a funding squeeze on opposition bailiwicks. Marginalized sectors (a much abused phrase in this country) are also assured of a share in public funds.

Officials of certain executive agencies have complained that the pork barrel system wreaks havoc on cohesive, long-term planning for infrastructure and development projects.

This can be clearly seen in the patchwork system of road maintenance or construction. A congressman may have a perfectly fine road – a short stretch within his district – dug up and repaved, so he can display his name and face on a billboard proclaiming that the project is his idea and funded with his PDAF. A commission from the contractor is the congressman’s gift for his labors. This system is the reason for short road segments of concrete alternating with asphalt pavement in many areas.

But this phenomenon can also happen under executive agencies. Those accusations of corruption in the DPWH aren’t just figments of the public’s malicious imagination.

A few years ago, during one of the periodic scandals involving the pork barrel, a senator famously sniffed that the problem boiled down to a question of which thief should control the money and collect the kickback.

When corruption is suspected at the top levels of government, which tends to trickle down the bureaucratic ranks, the pork barrel can save some public funds from the clutches of greed.

But when the administration paints itself as the champion of good governance, people see the dark side of the pork barrel, which is prone to abuse because of the opaque rules in its utilization. Congress is as resistant to financial transparency as the judiciary.

The opaqueness makes it easy to funnel the PDAF to NGOs, whose credentials are vouched for by lawmakers. The system makes it easy to channel funds to non-existent or ghost NGOs – something that is done to raise funds for the election campaign of lawmakers who are kapalmuks or shameless (we prefer thick-faced as translation).

The daang matuwid administration prefers to see the positive aspects of the pork barrel system. Malacañang has already announced that P-Noy does not intend to abolish the pork barrel. In fact, despite all the current bad press, the PDAF allocation has even been increased in the proposed annual appropriation for 2014.

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While those accused of misusing the PDAF are investigated, the administration is reportedly drawing up measures to make the system transparent.

The administration has already started implementing transparency measures in DPWH projects, and at the same time keeping out the epals or credit-grabbing politicians from polluting project billboards.

Yesterday, for example, DPWH workers installed a billboard in Rizal Park, announcing that the main flagpole in front of the Rizal Monument was being replaced at a cost of P7,865,425.03, sourced from DPWH funds. The billboard states that the contractor and supplier is AKH Construction and Trading Corp., with the DPWH South Manila Engineering District implementing the project.

Whoever becomes president in 2016 will likely also want to keep the PDAF system in place, for the same reasons as P-Noy. But the next president cannot afford to roll back transparency reforms implemented under P-Noy’s watch. There will be too much public heat – although when did this stop our politicians?

If lawmakers want to hang on to their pork, they should cooperate with Malacañang, instead of looking like they are simply being forced to be transparent in the use of public funds.

Transparency is a global trend anyway, a key component of good governance, which is necessary for strong, sustained economic growth. With advances in information and communication technology, Congress cannot buck for long the trend toward baring details of their fund utilization to the public. Today is always… a good time to start.


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