Abolishing the pork barrel

On its face, the pork barrel system appears to be a democratic way of apportioning government resources. Inherited from the United States, this scheme is supposed to allocate funds equally to every congressional district to be used for the residents’ most urgent needs. And who know the needs of these congressional communities better than the people they elected to represent them?

Legislators’ job. True, the main job of legislators is to enact laws for the common good, not to build roads, school houses and medical clinics, or feed orphans, grant scholarships, or distribute fertilizers. But, so the theory goes, they can—on the side—serve their constituents better by directing government resources to the urgent needs of their communities.

Over the decades, efforts have been made to deodorize the pork barrel. To emphasize its focus on the rural areas, it was called Countryside Development Fund. When this name became odorous, it was changed to Priority Development Assistance Fund.

To prevent abuse, various safeguards were instituted. For instance, the law required public bidding when the pork funds are to be implemented by nongovernment organizations. Releases were staggered based on deliveries or performance. And when public bidding was dispensed with, negotiated procurements were subjected to strict requirements, like the posting of a bond to answer for inadequate or substandard performance.

However, in the actual implementation, these safeguards were circumvented or ignored. No checking of NGOs was made, no public bidding held and no bonds required. After a recent Senate committee hearing, an exasperated Sen. Francis Escudero blurted out that the PDAF was riddled with “ghost deliveries, fake receipts, NGOs that you can’t locate, and nonexistent suppliers.” The net result: The pork barrel, in the billion pesos, rolled into private pockets.

Checks and balances. To solve the mess, members of Congress should be stripped of their prerogative to direct or allocate funds. Spending the budget should be left to the executive agencies, subject to safeguards enacted by Congress. After all, this is the real constitutional order: Executive officials implement what legislators enact.

In short, the solution is not really complicated. It is simply going back to the basic system of checks and balances, which was precisely instituted to curb excesses and minimize corruption. Congress, which enacts the budget, should be independent of Malacañang, which spends it, and likewise independent of the judiciary, which decides conflicts between these two great branches of government.

How do we return to this basic system? The obvious but not so easy answer is: Congress should legislate out pork. Not so easy because the legislators would be acting against their interest, and would be rejecting what they really want.

One way of legislating it out, according to reader Perry Libre, is to adopt the “results-based” budgeting that is transparent and accountable, and to abandon the current, antiquated “line-budgeting” system. I do not have the space to explain his proposal but I will forward his letter to Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad via e-mail.

Is there any other way? Yes, the Supreme Court can declare it unconstitutional. Several lawyers and citizens have asked the Court to invalidate the pork barrel. Their petitions ran counter to a long line of cases, detailed in the Inquirer editorial on Sept. 7, repeatedly upholding its validity. However, the Court can overturn jurisprudence if given cogent reasons to do so. Already, it has issued a temporary restraining order on PDAF releases for the rest of this year.

Safeguarding the treasury. But even if the pork barrel system is abolished by legislative or judicial fiat, there is still a need to allocate and spend public funds. In fine, the public treasury should still be safeguarded when the various executive agencies dispense public funds, including the presidential discretionary and social funds. But at least here, the legislators, instead of gorging on public money, would be safeguarding it via their oversight functions and legislative investigations.

But the most effective way to safeguard the public treasury is public vigilance, armed with a pro-people Freedom of Information (FOI) Law.

Much of the opposition to the pending FOI bill is the need for confidentiality in some matters of governance. I do not think there is a dispute on the need for exceptions. One good reading on this point is Senate vs Ermita (April 20, 2006).

In this celebrated decision, which overturned an executive order banning Cabinet secretaries from appearing in a Senate investigation, the Supreme Court discoursed on “executive privilege” and extended confidentiality not only to military and diplomatic secrets but also to the President’s “conversations and correspondences.”

Citing Almonte vs Vasquez (May 23, 1995), the Court said “the President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately.”

Similarly, internal deliberations of the Supreme Court and other collegiate courts are privileged. If exposed to the public, the justices would be hindered in finding novel solutions to sensitive cases.

In sum, the exceptions should not delay the enactment of the FOI bill. The current scandal involving the pork barrel should be enough reason to hasten its passage into law.

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