It was Madeleine Albright, former US ecretary of State, who first remarked that “Corruption is the cancer of democracy.” It’s one of those statements that become more prophetic as time goes by.
The pathological metaphor gives me the creeps. But if corruption is the cancer, the pork barrel is plainly a cancer cell that has spread to different parts of our political system.
Pork is by no means the only visible sign of corruption in the system. There’s surely even more corruption going on in the regulatory activities of government, in the lobbying for legislation by corporations and foreign governments and organizations, and in the awarding of contracts and projects.
But it’s pork above all that has crystallized vividly the state of dysfunction of our government, and has focused public outrage against our leaders and politicians. Even the official name for pork, Priority Development Assistance fund (PDAF), reeks of a swindle.
The fact that the pork barrel has corrupted and discredited Congress is to be expected. Until the Supreme Court struck down the PDAF as unconstitutional, securing their share of pork was the single most important priority of our legislators, of senators and representatives alike. That they exact kickbacks from pork projects is likely.
That it’s the senators who will likely suffer and repay the most for misusing the pork barrel is both surprising and ironic. Senators are elected nationally, like the president and vice-president; they do not have local constituencies to serve and placate. In contrast, representatives (both regular and party-list) have local districts and specific constituencies to serve, and it is clearly for their sake that legislators labor hard to secure pork in order to fund projects.
Pork revived under Cory Aquino
During the administration of President Marcos, especially during its authoritarian phase (1972-86), the pork barrel did not exist. Funding for local districts was itemized in the budget. There were also no senators then, be.cause the country adopted the parliamentary system with the 1973 constitution.
When the pork barrel was reinvented in 1987 during the Cory Aquino administration and through the aggressive lobbying of then Speaker Ramon Mitra and other congressional leaders, their main idea was to provide representatives with funds for local projects, and to enable them to win reelection. It had a modest name at the start – the Countryside Development Fund (CDF).
Senators wee not allotted their own pork barrel at the time. They had no local constituents to serve. And they could lobby well enough for projects (infrastructure and the like) that could project them before the national electorate. Senators during that now distant era could say that the pork barrel was foreign policy to them.
Senatorial interest in the pork barrel was roused during the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos and by the speakership of Jose de Venecia, who aggressively moved to transform the pork barrel into a system as certain as the seasons.
The initial outlay for senatorial pork was modest, and then it began to increase every year. By the time Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ended her term as president, the pork barrel had ballooned to P70 million per year for each representative, and P200 million per year for each senator.
The fund was eagerly lapped up by the legislators. Only senators Joker Arroyo and Panfilo Lacson can claim innocence of the practice because they pointedly disdained using their pork allocation.
PNOY increased pork barrel by 300%
It’s not known which Senate leader was mainly responsible for securing so huge an appropriation for Senate members. It’s also worthwhile to find out who were the senators who led the lobbying. The answer to these questions may help to explain why the Senate became so vulnerable to corruptors.
From an outlay of P8 billion for pork during the time of President Arroyo, the PDAF ballooned to P27 billion during the presidency of President BS Aquino 3rd.
Aquino’s stance toward the misuse of PDAF is marked by no little hypocrisy. It’s a certainty that he availed himself of his pork barrel when he was a representative for Tarlac for three terms, and a senator for one term. And he certainly did nothing to rein in pork when he became president. In fact, he increased it by 300 percent.
Most shocking of all, President Aquino inflated the fund even more with the invention by DBM Secretary Florencio Abad of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which dispensed more funds to legislators in addition to creating a humungous pork barrel for the President.
The pork barrel system went haywire during this administration because of President Aquino’s intense lobbying for certain actions of Congress:
The passage of the Reproductive Health Law, which was a conditionality for a grant of $454 million to the Aquino administration from the US government.
The synchronization of elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to replace sitting officials and to prepare the way for Aquino’s push for a peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government distributed a lot of money in ARMM in order to buy peace.
The impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona by the House of Representatives, and his impeachment trial by the Senate. The speedy release of pork to senators and the distribution of DAP funds to senators voting to convict is bribery in any language.
Funds flowed freely to Congress as a result. A feeding frenzy ensued, as legislators jostled to get as much pork as they could get their hands on. Abad and his department functioned as Aquino’s chief instrument for the corruption of Congress. Senators were pressed to avail themselves of the DAP fund during and after the Corona trial. Even those who did not vote for Corona’s impeachment, like Senators Bongbong Marcos and Joker Arroyo, were offered DAP allotments.
The funds dispensed ran into billions. The disbursing system was liberalized. It was amidst the frenzy that Janet Lim Napoles pounced with her irresistible plunder scheme and kickbacks paid in advance.
Living without pork good for everyone
Madeleine Albright’s remark that “corruption is the cancer of democracy” aptly describes what has happened here in the Philippines. From nothing during the Marcos era and from the innocent-looking CDF during Cory’s watch, the congressional pork barrel grew and ballooned over the last 28 years.
The initial diseased cell metastasized into the cancer that we see today – a horrible disease capable not only of destroying reputations and careers, but perhaps even our democracy itself.
Excising the diseased cells will not be easy. As with the human health condition, there’s no sure cure yet for this political pathology.
Outlawing the pork barrel as the Supreme Court did is an important first step.
Charging grafters in court, regardless of party affiliation, should stop all those who have conspired to defraud the government in the use of PDAF funds. That is the critical second step.
The Ombudsman’s move last week was precedent-setting. Until then, it had seemed inconceivable that members of Congress, which wields the power of the purse and the power of oversight over the executive, would ever be made to answer corruption charges before the Sandiganbayan.
A third important step is for Congress –both the House and the Senate – to start living on a no-pork diet.
Congressional constituents must similarly adjust by desisting from demanding from representatives and senators pork benefits in all its forms—be it scholarships, medical care, or public works. Soft pork must be banished from our political vocabulary. Hard pork must be substituted with real public works projects.
The billions saved from this new spending regime can be directed toward the improvement of public education, the strengthening of public health facilities, and the effective administration of social welfare programs.
Without doubt, the public can live and survive without pork. Given time, senators and representatives too will learn to live without pork too. It is healthier for everyone and the nation.