Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pork by any other name


My July 21, 2015 column.
Is there still pork in the national budget? 
The question is pretty straightforward so it is reasonable to expect a similarly straight answer.  Unfortunately, what we’ve been given instead are the convoluted explanations about the difference between “post-enactment” and “pre-enactment interventions” as far as the national budget is concerned.  All the hemming and hawing only serve to reinforce the general suspicion that something is wrong somewhere.
We do get what the administration and its supporters (notably among them Senator Francis Escudero) have been trying to say, which is that lawmakers are no longer given blanket approval to determine where and how their budget allocations would go during the implementation of the budget.  Presumably, legislators must now “make their requests” prior to the approval of the budget and that these “requests” need to be reflected in the respective budgets of the various departments.   In short, legislators can still identify pet projects, advance certain advocacies, and maneuver to deliver benefits or advantages to his or her district - exactly what the pork barrel system was about.  It’s been camouflaged, sanitized, dressed-up, relabelled, and repackaged, but pork is still there.
In the interest of being truthful, I don’t recall that President B. S. Aquino committed to abolish the pork barrel system.  His preference, at least according to Budget Secretary Butch Abad, was to reform the system.  It can be recalled that he did put up a great defense of the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which was widely referred to as the biggest pork of all.  When the Supreme Court rendered the DAP unconstitutional, he went through the equivalent of a public tantrum.  When faced with overwhelming arguments about how the pork barrel system was inevitably linked to corruption and tended to perpetuate political patronage, the President pulled out the card that has worked well every single time he was in a political bind:  He made the issue personal, took the whole issue as an affront on his personal integrity, and accused his critics of trying to sabotage all the good things he has been trying to do for this country.    
Based on the revelations of Senators Panfilo Lacson and Serge Osmena, there is a lot of pork in the current budget and even in the 2016 national budget as well.  What is even more astonishing is that there are now no limits assigned to specific legislators insofar as the amount of projects they can request for.  In the current budget, billions of pesos were allocated for projects endorsed by certain senators.  What we can conclude right off is that the executive branch has now been given absolute decision-making powers over “requests” of legislators.  It’s not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where this power can still be used as leverage to garner a legislator’s support for certain initiatives of the executive branch.  And while the money will no longer go through the office of the senators who endorsed the project, the senators can still claim ownership of the projects and can still make political capital out of government money.  In short, the new system has not really addressed many of the things that people found objectionable with the pork barrel system!
The kickbacks and commissions that legislators derived from the pork barrel system were objectionable.  But these were not the end-all and be-all of the campaign to abolish the pork barrel system.  The fact that Janet Napoles or that Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla Jr. are in jail is not enough.
We want the pork barrel system abolished because it nurtures political patronage which is the cancer that gnaws at our political system.  The job of legislators is to enact laws.  Senators and congressmen have no business spending public money for purposes other than for the creation of laws designed to nurture an enabling environment for all.  Legislators should be judged - elected, re-elected, or booted out of office - on the basis of their performance as a maker of laws, and never on their capability to deliver benefits and advantages to their constituents.  Otherwise we’ll forever be doomed to the spectacle of watching senators and congressmen make utter fools of themselves as legislators.  If we truly want significant changes in this country, let’s begin by electing the right leaders - and we cannot do so until and unless we abolish the system that feeds political patronage.
The pork barrel system breeds both illegitimate and unethical practices.  There is clearly something wrong in a system where government projects are linked to political personages.  The independence of either branch of government is severely undermined when government projects can be used as leverage in political machinations.  
It must be reiterated:  If we truly want change in our political system, the pork barrel - in all its forms - must be abolished.  Too bad, however, that people seem to be already content with the fact that Napoles and company are already in jail.
***
Senators Grace Poe and Francis Escudero have so far refrained from confirming their plans for 2016, but it doesn’t take a genius to read their behavior.  Why would they go through all that trouble to meet with the President in Malacanang, and on several occasions at that, if they didn’t have the intention to run in 2016? 
To my mind, a clear indication that Senator Escudero is seriously considering running for any of the top two posts in 2016 is the sudden appearance of anti-Escudero materials in various social networking sites.  He is now a target of political assassination.  I have received in my inbox  at least two versions of a white paper that essentially label Escudero as a traitor, opportunist, and a philandering arrogant boor. Most of the allegations in the white paper are actually dated but the accusations that his ties with Senator Poe is further evidence of his opportunism seems to strike a chord in many.
It is easy to dismiss the allegations as politically-motivated.  However, I do think that allegations of treachery is deadly for any political candidate.  I think that voters in general will prefer a crook to a traitor, anytime.  I have been in a number of occasions where people tended to believe the worst of the senator.  If Escudero really intends to run for either president or vice president in 2016, he needs to do something to counter the wallop that he has been dealt with this early.

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