Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Power of the ‘Pork’

PerryScope By Perry Diaz

The term “pork barrel” refers to the use of government funds that are intended to benefit the constituents of a politician in return for their votes. In effect, it is an institutionalized -- and legalized -- form of vote-buying. So, whoever controls the allocation of pork barrel funds wields immense political power.

In the nine years that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been in office, she learned how to use the power of the “pork” to keep her allies in line as well as to stop opposition to her self-perceived “god-given” mandate to rule the country. Indeed, the “pork barrel system” -- officially known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) -- has become the linchpin of her brand of “political patronage.”

Who gets the pork?

The annual allocation of pork barrel funds total about P7 billion with each senator getting P200 million and each congressman getting P70 million. It would have been easy for Congress to allocate the pork barrel funds in the national budget prorated equitably amongst the legislators and everybody would be happy. As a matter of fact, that’s how it used to be in the old days when legislators would get their fair share of the pork to spend on their pet projects for their constituents. But the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos took away the legislature’s “power of the purse” during the martial law days.

While the legislators’ pet projects are well-meaning and beneficial to their constituents, the lack of transparency and auditability gives rise to opportunity for graft and corruption. There are reports that some legislators demand kickbacks or commissions -- as high as 50% -- from contractors and suppliers. Corruption is more prevalent in public work construction projects where bidders could collude to fix their bids; thus, allowing kickbacks -- or “tongpats” -- to be embedded in their lump sum bids.

Gloria used the “power of the purse” to strengthen her political position and exercise sole discretion and total control on how pork barrel funds are disbursed, and how much each legislator would receive. In other words, the legislators are at the mercy of Gloria in getting their pork. If you were not in Gloria’s good graces, you would end up with nothing to spend in your district.

This led former Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Emilia Boncodin to accuse Gloria of practicing “selective release” of pork barrel funds which means that only those close to Gloria would get the funds.

Biggest pork barrel in history

In 2005, Gloria used more than P80 billion for pork barrel -- that’s 10 times the normal amount! -- for projects in which most were shrouded in mystery. More than half of this -- P46.8 billion -- were allocated for “Healing of Edsa I, II and III Funds.” When asked in a radio interview, then Budget Secretary Romulo Neri explained that the P46.8-billion “healing of Edsa wounds” fund included P29 billion for “back pension payments for retired Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police personnel.” That’s a hell of a lot of money! Shouldn’t they be included in the Department of National Defense and Philippine National Police budgets? Or was it used surreptitiously to keep the military “loyal” to Gloria during the “Hello Garci” election cheating scandal and Edsa III uprising?

In 2008, former Speaker Joe de Venecia revealed that Gloria controlled the legislators’ pork barrel through her sons, Congressmen Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo and Diosdado “Dato” Arroyo. According to De Venecia, the legislators couldn’t get their pork barrel approved by Gloria without her sons’ endorsements. It is no wonder then that several impeachment petitions against Gloria were defeated by her allies in Congress. Who would dare infuriate her and risk losing his pork?

Indeed, by controlling the pork barrel allocations of the congressmen, Gloria became the “Supreme Overlord” of the House of Representatives. Their mantra was: “What Gloria wants, Gloria gets.” And anyone who would buck her would get a kick in the back. De Venecia found that out when, in a swift act, he was unceremoniously ousted from the Speakership by his party mates whom he thought were his friends. Sorry, pal, but as someone once said, “There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent self-interest.”

Abolition of the pork

In 2009, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero introduced Resolution No. 900 “urging the Senate committee on Finance to cause the immediate review and accordingly propose the repeal or amendment of Presidential Decree No. 1177 and Book VI of Executive Order No. 292, specifically all provisions pertinent to budget preparation, disposition and management, with the end in view of reverting to Congress the power of the purse as prescribed by the Constitution.”

A few weeks ago, Escudero -- a proponent of the abolition of the pork barrel system -- said that Gloria “has been exercising her power to impound pork not because of any lofty purpose but to give out or withhold political favor to help her allies and to strangle her political opponents.”

Last year, Gloria released P459 million in pork barrel funds for infrastructure projects in her son Mikey’s 2nd district of Pampanga. This is seven times more than a typical allocation. But what is appalling is that Gloria is running for Congress in Pampanga’s second district and billboards were erected all over the district showing her picture wearing a hard hat, claiming credit for all the infrastructure improvements in her son’s district. Obviously, she’s using pork barrel funds for her congressional campaign. It may be deemed legal because it was part of the PDAF general appropriation. However, as Congresswoman Ana Theresia Baraquel commented, Gloria’s use of pork barrel funds was “improper” and “shameless” spending.

With Gloria running for Congress virtually unopposed, she could easily become the next Speaker of the House of Representatives. She’d then be closer to her ultimate goal of amending the constitution to change the form of government to a parliamentary system.

Is the country ready for a structural change of government? In my opinion, the country is not yet ready, not until we have a leader who has the best interests of the country and the people in mind. Right now, that leader has yet to emerge. But with 10 presidential candidates in the May 10 elections, there should be one that would rise above the others to take the biggest challenge of the presidency; that is, abolish pork barrel.

No pork, no fat.