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FROM LECHON TO CHICHARON: Or Why PNoy Is Not Actually Dismantling the Pork Barrel

August 23, 2013 at 3:28pm

Sometimes, I am thankful that I usually miss out on "history as it happens" - it gives me this level of distance (even if it be just a matter of hours). And with an issue as aged and as blood-curdling as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or "pork barrel", we might really just need it. Today, President Benigno Aquino III seems to have thundered across our screens (digital and televisual, for that matter) with the seemingly-simple yet controversial claim: "Panahon na po upang i-abolish ang PDAF." The supporters of the administration have already posed it as their way of saying: "See, your government is listening to you! We really are traversing the matuwid na daan!" But what are the implications, really? We might need a few notes regarding the President's proclamation of "abolishing" the PDAF: 1) In principle, the President was not inconsistent with his previous statements about the PDAF. He remains adamant that the system itself was inherently good, only perverted (which is eerily and unfittingly gospellike claim if you will): "[W]hat we now know as PDAF was established for a worthy goal: to enable your representatives to identify projects for your communities that your LGU cannot afford. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy. But what is wrongindeed, what has outraged our peoplewas the collusion among a former president ready to trade favors just to remain in power, legislators, and members of the bureaucracy who were willing to conspire, enabled by a passive and indifferent citizenry. All these factors put together make PDAF prone to abuse." The key words here: "established for a worthy goal"; "nothing intrinsically wrong"; "prone to abuse." The assumption is that the system of PDAF is inherently good. Herein lies the problem of principle, which informs this entire proclamation. It simply claims: "The intention of giving legislators power to determine what LGUs cannot afford, as a system, is good: therefore, if it malfunctions, we just need to remove a faulty cog/wire/hard drive/software." it does not dare acknowledge that the system itself is faulty, that the entire premise of giving legislators de facto executive capability dismantles the entire premise of government checks-and-balances. Hence the statement intending to win over the public: "Despite the reforms we have implemented, we have seen, as the events of the past weeks have shown, that greater change is necessary to fight against those who are determined to abuse the system. It is time to abolish PDAF." We are grasping at mere rhetoric here, and that is just it: rhetoric. They are basically saying: "The

system was abused. Let us replace the hardware, but with the same intent, the same software."
2) The President, appealing and deploying his populism-laden prerogative as the executive, has similarly made this interesting and very telling proclamation:

"I will make sure that every citizen and sector will get a fair and equitable share of the national budget for health services, scholarships, livelihood-generating projects, and local infrastructure. Your legislators can identify and suggest projects for your districts, but these will have to go through the budgetary process. If approved, these projects will be earmarked as line items, under the programs of your National Government. In this way, they will be enacted into law as part of our National Budgetevery line, every peso, and every project open to scrutiny, as with all other programs of your government." What he is simply saying here is that (a) before a project could be placed in the national budget, it cannot be determined by the representative alone: it has to get the fiat of the president, and (b) the process would require further closer cooperation between the President and Congress. To put it simply, I quote a friend from the Political Science Department, Bian Villanueva: "If this turns out right, he actually expanded the power of the executive over spending by taking over the discretion the legislature had - if congressmen want money for projects they literally have to ask the President to include it in the budget since he also wants to ban insertions. Kakakilabot haha."* Instead of keeping the constitutional mandate of checks and balances, the President actually is further encroaching on the independence of the legislature. This, of course, is nothing new. Latin American presidents have been habitually engaging in such, as quoted in a 2001 study by Cox and Morgernstern**: "The separation of powers has been overridden by the president's political strength, usually based on his ability to control candidate selection and elections to the assembly, the distribution of pork to members of the assembly, and the postassembly career prospects of sitting legislators." That being said, it is quite disturbing how we are letting this happen quite brazenly. Some would say desperate measures for desperate instances. I simply say it is simply a manifestation of how unimaginative our notion of political structural change can be, that we always rely on "Let the President say something about it," as if executive proclamation makes it into law. Or might it be that the Office of the President (and us for that matter) really hasn't shaken off the potential to constitutional authoritarianism? 3) The President similarly called for placing "safeguards against corruption", of which I will focus on only three:

"The funds cannot be disbursed to NGOs and certain GOCCs, such as ZREC and NABCOR. Both of these GOCCs will be abolished, along with others of their kind that have become notorious for anomalies, and which seem to serve no other purpose aside from being instruments of corruption." If anything, this is a bit disturbing, if only because of its reactive tendency. The President has cast suspicion on the necessity of nongovernment intervention wholesale, as if NGOs as a whole are conduits of corruption, even against NGOs which are actively cooperating with policy implementation (and more significantly, manned and organized by the constituencies that are supposed to determined how they develop themselves). Simply because of government negligence, government is now blaming democratic openings and is now planning to re-assert "topdown" determination of policy development.

"The funds must be limited to the district or sector of the legislator who sponsored it."

Again, this practically keeps hostage the legislator to the good graces of the President. More significantly, it does not diminish the already-cozy relationship most patronage-fueled traditional politicians have, and the localization of funds similarly keeps the legislator with an established local machinery of influence with still-relative leeways by which they could determine the usage of funds, not as determined by the constituencies themselves (as is the case of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone in Aurora and how the Angara family bulldozes it against the will of the people of Casiguran).

"So that the public may monitor the implementation themselves, we will make sure that each item will be disclosed in the DBM and related agency websites and the National Data Portal of the government." Data released by the government, precisely because it is in a position of authority, is already subject to scrutiny. This would have made sense with a law providing for free access to information, but sadly the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill remains languishing in Congress. While I take responsibility for these opinions, I acknowledge that many others share my skepticism of the President's claims as another mere posturing of the administration, a call for legitimizing itself and distancing itself from controversy, in the face of its fellow oligarchs being subject to the scrutiny of the public. (Which was my main concern for the longest time: why have we been merely pointing out at Janet Lim-Napoles as the scapegoat for everything? How impossible it is to point out that apart from the unfortunately stupid bagwoman Napoles, why not implicate everyone else involved with her? P.S. Yes, I know, RICO cases do not work that way.) That being said, the situation is visible: Despite his statement to the contrary, the President will not abolish the transfer of funds between executive and legislative. Independent, publicly-determined governance remains at jeopardy with this arrangement, and it is all too indicative in the President's policy: "We will continue the practice of requiring that projects to be funded come from a specific menu of qualified projects." "Qualified" by those in power, not by the people. Our demand remains undiminished. Abolish the Pork Barrel, with no ifs, buts, and any other caveats. CUT THE FAT. ________ *See Bian Villanueva's original post at: <> **Gary W. Cox and Scott Morgenstern, "Latin America's Reactive Assemblies and Proactive Presidents" in Comparative Politics, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jan., 2001), pp. 171-189