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We must tackle the root causes of pork barrel

Somebody posted on my Facebook account the stylized ban-pork-barrel design that contained a link to a very informative infographic we reproduce on this page. This is in a website www.correctphilippines.org, which stands for “Correct the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines”.

While the site didn’t have information on who’s behind it, I wouldn’t care as I’m convinced we’re in such deep mess that we have to start from the beginning, that is, by changing the basic framework for our Republic. I seriously believe changing the Constitution is our last chance to move our country forward.

The site contains a lot of information and articles that support the view that we really need to change our Constitution, to a parliamentary system. There is even a prescient article by the great Senator Claro M. Recto, which states that the presidential system will lead to a dictatorship.

I hope people drop their biases against changing the charter. There is just too much evidence that we have to do so, based on our country’s experience since the rushed 1987 Constitution and those of our neighbors whose charters prescribe different forms of government.

The ban-the-pork-barrel icon of www.correctphilippines.org

The ban-the-pork-barrel icon of www.correctphilippines.org

The correctphilippines.org’s infographic lists three “root causes of the pork barrel”, although I disagree with the order of its listing. These are, in reverse order from the way the infographic presents them:

One root cause is the presidential system of government, whose main feature is the separation of the legislative and executive branches of government, making it prone to gridlock. To avoid political paralysis, the President has no choice but to “buy” Congress’ cooperation—through the pork barrel allocations, which is legalized bribery.

I add here the following unique circumstances that have prodded our presidents since the fall of Marcos to use the pork barrel system.

President Cory Aquino reintroduced it, after martial law made it unnecessary, when she assumed power extra-constitutionally. Her regime was so unstable that there were seven coup attempts to topple her. She bought political leaders’ loyalty and gave them a stake in representative government through her pork barrel system, euphemistically called the Countrywide Development Fund or CDF.

Her successor Fidel Ramos won the presidency by a slim margin, making it necessary for him to consolidate his rule through his own version of the pork barrel system. Furthermore, Ramos was determined to undertake fundamental economic reforms, such as the liberalization of the telecoms industry which riled the oligarchs. Ramos had to have the political leaders solidly behind him for his reform programs. There was of course hardly a doubt for his successor Joseph Estrada in continuing Ramos’ pork barrel, especially when he faced his ouster just on his second year.

Estrada’s successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also assumed power extra-constitutionally, and therefore, like Cory, had to use the pork barrel system to stabilize her regime. The threats to her rule after her controversial election in 2004 prodded her to continue the pork barrel system. The alternative scenario would have been another mob movement that would have toppled her, which would have created such political instability and violence that we would have been the basket case of Southeast Asia, especially since the Global Financial Crisis—said to be worse than the Great Depression before the war—broke out in 2008.

I cannot fathom though why President Benigno Aquino 3rd had to triple the annual pork barrel allocations from P7.8 billion during Arroyo’s term to his P24.8 billion, when he enjoyed very high popularity ratings even into his third year. The only explanation is that he thought he could make Congress remove Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012 only through huge pork barrel allocations to Congress.

And by 2013, his incompetence—his Student Council government, as Senator Joker Arroyo dubbed it—was becoming so stark that he could rely on Congress’ support only by maintaining the same level of pork barrel that he used to buy them off for the impeachment.

The second root cause of the pork barrel is what the correct philippines.org calls “imperial Manila-centric unitary.” This means “only imperial Manila prospers, while the rest of the country remains poor.” This creates a need to redistribute funds collected from all over the Philippines for local projects around the country. “Politicians,” the infographic explains, “ask for special funding from national coffers for basketball courts, bridges, roads, and other local projects to get their constituencies’ loyalty and support.”

While correctphilippines.org didn’t explain why we have this Manila-centric system, it is obvious that the biggest factor why it has been such is the fact that both businesses and government are concentrated in Manila, which hasn’t been dispersed because of our weak transport and power infrastructure.

I would add though a major political factor for the Manila-centric system: our unique—I would even say stupid—Senatorial system. I haven’t found a single country in the world that has our system in which senators are elected on a national scale. In the US, voters in each state elect two senators, while in most other countries, senators are elected per region.

And where would senators emerge? In metropolitan Manila, of course, which is the center of media as well as of economic and political elites. Even our elites, who made their fortunes in plantations in the Visayas and Central Luzon such as the Lopezes and the Cojuangcos had to go to Manila to become national-level oligarchs.

Go through the list of the present senators, is there somebody there you could say is based outside Manila? They may be called, the “gentleman from Cagayan” or the “gentleman from Bicol,” but that’s really stretching it.

If senators were voted per region, the national capital region would be an intense arena for nearly half of the present senators to compete, as they can’t even claim to come from other regions: the two Cayetanos (Taguig), Binay (Makati), the two Estrada sons and Grace Poe (San Juan), Honasan (Camp Aguinaldo really, hardly Sorsogon), Legarda (Malabon), Sotto (Quezon City), Trillianes (Caloocan), Villar (Paranaque). The reality is that metropolitan Manila is very much over-represented in our political system. Thus, it is not surprising we have a Manila-centric political system.

What does this mean? Unlike in the US and elsewhere, our Senate is not a political body that counters the centralization by the Manila-centric presidential system. There isn’t even a body that represents each region. What we have instead are representatives of relatively small political districts.

This even become absurd in the case Batanes, which has a population of 16,000 yet still has one vote in Congress and an annual pork barrel of P70 million, the amount that a poor district like Eastern Samar with a population of 430,000 gets. So what can a representative like Ben Evardone, a former colleague in the profession do? He’d be stupid if he doesn’t lobby for his pork-barrel, and promise Aquino anything in exchange.

The third root cause of the pork barrel correctphilippines.org has pointed out is the country’s “anti-foreign investor restrictions”, which reduces the capital and businesses that would have been available for the country. This in turn creates a situation in which Filipinos—whose numbers keep on increasing because contraceptive means are beyond them –- can’t find jobs, and therefore are trapped in poverty.

There are still arguments against opening up our country completely to foreign capital, and many of these seem logical enough. But let’s face it, we can no longer ignore what happened and is happening in our part of the world in the last two decades. There is just too much correlation between the economic growth of Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia and the high levels of their foreign investments that dwarf ours. The recent massive inflow of foreign investments into Vietnam and Cambodia will be repeating economic history in our part of the world.

And with massive poverty, what is the poor to do but knock on a congressman’s door and ask for help for some urgent hospitalization, their children’s tuition, and for the repair of a farm-to-market road? And the congressman won’t and can’t rely on his salary of P45,000 (net) per month for these dole outs. He’d either use his pork barrel funds, or even skim off it. If he doesn’t, he’ll bite the dust to his rival who’ll be promising the moon to the voters.

As Cavite Rep. Lani Mercado Revilla bluntly put it: “I have to tell (our) 7,000 scholars that without the PDAF, I can’t help them. We use our PDAF for medical and even burial assistance.”