Salted pork in the barrel

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“It is time to abolish the PDAF.” Thus, President Aquino dramatically announced the end of the present pork barrel system under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). In the same breath, he asserted that, “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy.” He further said, “[W]hat is wrong—indeed, what has outraged our people—was 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. We need to make sure the system can no longer be abused.”

President Aquino really did away with the PDAF. But, he did not abolish the pork barrel system. What he did is to reform the latter, promising tighter control through detailed inclusion of the legislators’ projects in the national budget, starting with the 2014 National Budget and providing mechanisms for both government and citizen oversight. However, discretion as to where, when, and whom to give the funds to, remains with the legislator. This essentially segregates pork barrel from other government funds.

With the retention of the pork barrel system, President Aquino thus preserved one of the pillars of the traditional patronage system that was set up during the American colonial government, carried through the Commonwealth period and the pre-martial law republic, monopolized and perfected by dictator Marcos, and consequently revived by the late President Cory Aquino in 1990, the president’s mother.

Within this political patronage system, there are various mechanisms of patronage, including sponsorship of government appointments by influential political figures, bankrolling candidacies to elective positions, dealing out government contracts to favored businessmen, or granting favors to followers and friends. The pork barrel system, in reality, is a special presidential mechanism to elicit loyalty, influence, pressure, cajole, or punish members of Congress on their vote and political alignment, and otherwise exert presidential political will on Congress.

It is impossible to abolish the pork barrel system without abolishing the whole political patronage system. It is also a given that the temptation for corruption is intrinsic to the pork barrel system because of its patronage nature. The corrupt among the legislators will always find a way around any control Malacañang can imagine (or pretend to imagine). The Napoles case is not about a normal scam by a government outsider but—as the story unfolded—about a convenient collusion of criminals in the legislature, in select government agencies, and in bogus “non-government organizations” out to defraud government and pocket public funds.

In short, what needs abolition are the institution of political patronage, including the pork barrel system, and the institution of political dynastic rule. Embedded in the regime of the post-Marcos elite democracy, these undemocratic institutions are used to maintain inequality in society and deny meaningful participation of the vast majority of the people in the electoral process and reaping the benefits of democratic rule.

What the president did was to add more salt to the pork and put it in the budget barrel. It is still pork barrel.

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