Pork barrel a major cause of corruption

As I See It
By Neal Cruz
from Philippine Daily Inquirer


The elimination of corruption is the primary promise of President Benigno C. Aquino III and I would like to think that that is the main reason Filipinos made him President with the biggest mandate in recent history. “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap,” was his campaign slogan. Indeed, tens of billions of pesos are lost to corruption every year. And that is one reason why so many Filipinos are dirt-poor. Money that should have been spent for services to the people is lost to corruption.

One of the principal causes of corruption is the congressional pork barrel, that part of the people’s money that members of Congress surreptitiously set aside for their projects, half of which they steal. A good part of last Saturday’s Kapihan sa Sulo forum, where defeated LP senatorial candidates Nereus Acosta and Martin Bautista were guests, was spent discussing the pork barrel. Former members of the House defended the pork barrel system. Understandable, because they benefited from it when they were in the House.

“Congress has ‘the power of the purse’” is the common refrain, meaning Congress has the power to pass the budget. The pork is spent for various projects of legislators, such as waiting sheds, basketball courts, barangay halls, substandard roads and sometimes bridges over dry land. The trouble is only half of the allocation goes to the project; the rest goes to private pockets. That is why most infrastructure projects are overpriced but are substandard. The contractor is forced to make do with what is left of the budget after he forks over to legislators and other public officials about half of it, sometimes even before he gets the first release of funds for the project.

Constructing government projects is the job of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), not of members of Congress. The job of the latter is to enact laws, not to be a duplicate DPWH. Search the Constitution with a fine-toothed comb and you will not find any provision that authorizes Congress to be a de facto DPWH. But year in and year out, legislators act as miniature DPWHs. That is usurpation of public authority. And because they shamelessly pocket some of the money, that is corruption which P-Noy promised to fight.

Everybody partakes of the illicit money: senators and congressmen, engineers, local government officials, treasurers and cashiers, the lowly clerks, and even private contractors, so you can see how the rot of the pork barrel system is contaminating the whole Philippine society.

Legislators claim that without the pork barrel the projects that they promised to their constituents would not be implemented. False.

There are regional development councils, provincial development councils, city and municipal development councils that discuss and approve projects within their respective territories. The purpose is to avoid duplication and wastage of taxpayers’ money, identify priority projects and plan a rational approach to development. Congressmen are members of these councils. They can push for their projects in these councils.

Congressmen claim that without the pork, LGU officials, who are usually their main rivals in their territories, will claim the credit for the projects. But that is not the responsibility of legislators, to usurp the functions of the DPWH. The Constitution says their responsibility is to enact laws, not to be ersatz project engineers. If they enact good laws, their constituents will give them credit and gratitude for that—and reelect them. But if they usurp the functions of the DPWH, and pocket some of the project’s budget, not only their constituents but the whole Filipino nation will demonize them for it. They may even go to jail.

Maybe that is the reason it takes a very long time for bills to be passed by Congress, and bloats the expenditure for each law passed. Legislators spend more time pushing their pet projects, and collecting half of the project’s budget, than attending to their responsibility of crafting good laws.

And in the first place, legislators should not make promises to do things that the Constitution does not give them authority to do, like usurping the functions of the DPWH and the development councils. The main reason why they sponsor projects is to be able to get a sizable portion of the project’s budget. And that is why so many people, including nominees by party-list groups, want to be congressmen. They want to share in the bonanza.

Each senator gets P150 million in pork every year; there are 24 senators. Each congressman gets P70 million a year; there are 250 of them. Chairmen and members of the Senate and House committees on Finance and Appropriations get much, much more. So go do the arithmetic and you will have an idea of how many billions of pesos of the people’s taxes are lost to the pork barrel system alone, money that should have been spent instead for services to the people and alleviate poverty, money that should have been funneled back in services to the people who slaved for and paid them.

It is so easy to end the pork barrel system. It is the Executive Department that prepares the annual budget and sends it to Congress. The legislature cannot appropriate funds for projects not in the President’s original budget proposal. So all the President has to do is not include in his budget proposal funds for pork. But year in and year out, Malacañang includes lump sums for such innocent-sounding appropriations as Priority Development Assistance Fund and Countrywide Development Fund. That is only the principal pork barrel fund. There are still congressional insertions in the budgets of most departments. The insertions provide that hundreds of millions of pesos of the budget are set aside for the projects of certain legislators.

The pork barrel is the President’s way of bribing legislators to do what he wants.

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