Monday, October 16, 2006

No pork, please

The following is my column today, October 16, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Twelve zeroes. A trillion pesos. To be specific, P1.26 trillion. That’s the 2007 national budget approved last Friday by the House of Representatives. It is a staggering amount and one that is incomprehensible to ordinary Filipinos. I am sure our educational system does not teach mathematical problems that involve trillions. Heck, I am not sure they even teach high school kids to do sums that reach billions.

I have no doubt that we can spend that much money. The question is how much of the money will go into the private bank accounts of the people that walk the corridors of power?

Our representatives were so ecstatic that they were able to pass the General Appropriations Act. Speaker Jose de Venecia couldn’t restrain himself from dishing out motherhood statements about how our lawmakers rose to the challenge and yada yada yada. He came very, very close to declaring our representatives as heroes and saints.

The chest thumping is partly attributable to the fact that Congress had failed to pass a budget since 2004, and because the House of Representatives had difficulty mustering a quorum last week. In fact, I think it was only last Tuesday when the Speaker publicly begged representatives to prioritize the budget hearings over social functions. The bigger reason is that anytime our representatives agree on anything seems to be more than enough reason for celebration. It is pathetic, but that’s where we are now.

I am not surprised that the House passed the budget. I will not be surprised if the Senate approves it as well in the next few weeks. There will be more of the usual self-righteous posturing, some attempts to project the impression that there is a semblance of checks and balance in government today, even verbal skirmishes and emotional tantrums. But in the end, you and I know how all these will end—pragmatism will prevail. A sizable chunk of the budget after all is allotted as Priority Development Assistance Fund. In simple English, that’s pork barrel money for legislators. In no-nonsense plain talk, that’s political largesse. Let’s talk about why this large-scale wastage of public money should be stopped in a while, but in the meantime, let’s focus on three interesting sidelights about the national budget.

First, the highest allocation under the approved budget goes to the Department of Education (P132.9 billion). Second and third highest allocations go to the Department of Public Works and Highways (P73.6 billion) and Department of Interior and Local Government (P51.1 billion), respectively.

I have no issue with the fact that these departments are up there in terms of allocation. Education is our best shot at regaining national competitiveness. Likewise, all those roller coasters and ferris-wheels promised during the President’s State of the Nation Address have to be funded. Local governments need to be strengthened and empowered. Fine. However, I am flabbergasted that the Department of Health got so much less and was a poor eighth in the rankings. Last I looked, health was a critical issue in this country. I am aware that the management and delivery of certain basic services such as health has been devolved to the local governments. However, the total allocation for health just does not make sense.

The second interesting sidelight to the approved budget is the amendment introduced by the opposition (and by the Speaker) allocating more money—P550 million if I am not mistaken—to the Office of the Ombudsman in order to give it more resources in fighting public corruption. I think that any effort to eliminate corruption is most welcome. I do not know what to make of our representatives’ generosity though. I am trying very, very hard to see sincerity in the action. Is this a failed attempt at sarcasm given the recent monumental foul-up of the Ombudsman when she exonerated Comelec commissioners? A friend of mine propounds a juicier quid pro quo conspiracy theory involving pork barrel funds. Let’s remind ourselves again that a major source of corruption is the representatives’ very own pork barrel fund. Of course, it’s all conjecture. Or is it?

The third interesting sidelight is that the House of Representatives gave the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board a budget that deserves a space in the Guinness Book of World Records: one peso. I do not know whether we should laugh or weep over the blatant display of childishness.

I believe that censorship has no place in our society. I have no love lost for people who feel no compunction over imposing their own moral standards on others. But I also know that there are legions of people out there who support the MTRCB and what it stands for. It does not justify the existence of MTRCB, but our legislators should know that the Board exists and was created by law and that upholding the law is their responsibility. If they want to abolish the MTRCB (and I firmly believe it is time to do it), they should outlaw it through legislation and by citing better justification. Banning that Erap documentary was a stupid thing to do, but the legislators should know better—that ban was cloaked with iron-clad legal support.

But I must admit that it was strangely gratifying to see MTRCB Chairman Consoliza Laguardia being humbled. She actually took the trouble to mount a vigil at the House of Representatives during the budget hearings to no avail.

The approved budget allocates P200 million in pork barrel alone to each senator. The allocation for each of our representatives was nothing to sneeze at, too, excluding insertions. You can do the math.

Let’s cut this crap about how the pork barrel fund is meant to democratize allocation of the national budget across the country. The reality is that the pork barrel poses more problems than solutions. First, it nurtures this culture of entitlement and political benevolence. It perpetuates what is so wrong with our current political system: we make elected officials powerbrokers, influence peddlers, and sources of political largesse. Second, it takes away focus from what our representatives should be doing—to legislate, not govern. Third, it makes representatives beholden if not hostage to the executive branch. Let’s face it: the release of pork barrel allocation has been used as bargaining chip in sticky political issues many times in the recent past. And finally, pork barrel funds have been found to be a major source of corruption. It is common knowledge that a sizable percentage of the costs of public works end up as grease money.

So here’s my message to Congress. You want a budget that really works for the Filipino people? Begin where you have absolute control over. Remove the pork barrel allocations from the budget. Liberate yourselves.

1 comment:

pinoy said...

with the kind of people we have in congress, asa ka pa!

i had a debate with Bayan Muna supporters calling them hypocrites for taking the pork. I told them that prior to their election in Congress, they were campaigning for the pork's scrapping. Now that they are in Congress, they benefit from the pork. I told them that if are really true to their convictions, they should have set the example of not taking he pork. but look at them now, nagpapakasasa sa pork.

their argument, if they will not take the pork, the money might just be wasted through graft and corruption. being "saints", they might as well use the money for better use. duh! not an acceptable excuse.