In Defense of the Pork Barrel

The author is a Professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 13 September 2004 edition.

Pork barrel projects would definitely rank among the top of the
Filipino’s list of most despised outputs of the Philippine Congress. It
is therefore not surprising to see that the abolition of the pork
barrel is raised every budget season, during periods of fiscal stress,
and in every crisis where the actions of politicians do not meet public
expectations.

In the current debate on the fiscal crisis, the President has again
called on legislators to reduce their pork barrel allocation to fix the
gargantuan budget deficit (which was approximately P200B in 2003).
Senator Ping Lacson has given up his pork while at least three other
senators promised to give up their pork if their colleagues do the
same. Members of Congress have been cool to the proposal but will find
it difficult to resist at least a cut in their current pork barrel
allocation.

The Attack on the Pork

Pork barrel (or pork barrel politics) is a derogatory term used to
describe government spending that is intended to enrich constituents of
a politician in return for campaign contributions or votes.

“Pork barrel” was used as a political term in the post-Civil War era in
the U.S. and found its way in the Philippines as part of the democratic
institutions and processes transplanted by American colonizers. It
comes from the plantation practice of distributing rations of salted
pork to slaves, from wooden barrels. When used to describe a bill, it
implies the legislation is loaded with special projects for legislators
to distribute to their constituents back home as an act of largesse.

However it is called—countryside development fund (CDF), congressional
initiative allocation (CIA), or priority development assistance fund
(PDAF)—pork barrel generally involves funding for programs and projects
whose economic benefits are concentrated only on a few but whose costs
are spread across all taxpayers.

The attacks on the pork have come from many quarters. Civil society
organizations and many columnists have called for its outright
abolition, arguing that Congress’ job is to legislate and not execute
or implement projects.
Bureaucrats assert that legislators should not mangle the executive
budget they produced through rational and consultative processes. Other
critics question the choice of projects identified by legislators as
piece-meal and irrational. Still others have called for the transfer of
pork barrel funds directly to local governments.

In the latest attack on the pork barrel, the Philippine Center for
Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) argues that while pork barrel funds do
provide services to constituents, they foster political patronage,
institutionalize patron-client relations, strengthen the chances of
incumbents for re-election, and engender corruption.

Democracy and Pork Barrel

Is pork barrel spending inconsistent with the principle of separation
of powers in a democratic system since members of Congress are elected
to pass laws and not implement projects? A look at the major
democracies in the world—US, Canada, UK, Australia, Japan, among
others—easily disproves this point. Pork barrel is alive and well in
all major democracies in the world, and they do not suffer the same
economic maladies that we have.

Pork barrel goes hand in hand with democratic processes and
institutions. Governments all over the world use their power to tax and
spend to favor certain constituencies with special benefits.
Democratically elected officials have geographic-specific electoral
bases that they “represent” (that is why members of Congress are called
representatives) and legislator-constituency relations are often
defined in terms of providing location-specific projects like roads,
livelihood projects, courthouses, airports, and schools.

Those who argue that legislators are elected only to make laws fail to
grasp the meaning of democratic representation. Legislators articulate
the interests and demands of their constituents to the national
government. In many instances, the solutions to these problems cannot
be found in making laws but in ensuring that the needs of their
constituents are addressed. In a perfect world, executive agencies
provide these projects. In an imperfect world, pork barrel projects
meet these demands.

American political scientist Diana Evans even argues that pork barrel
facilitates legislative decision-making. She asserts that pork barrel
benefits, while reviled by many, are routinely used by political
leaders to build coalitions to pass much-needed legislation on social
welfare, health, and education. Buying votes with pork, in this
instance, enables Congress to enact laws that are contentious and
difficult to pass.

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Good Pork versus Bad Pork

Should we abolish the pork and transfer all funds to the executive
branch? This contention assumes that: 1) the choices made by
legislators in the use of their PDAF are irrational and even corrupt;
and 2) that executive decision-making is more rational (and ethical)
than those of legislators.

While there is no question that there are many examples of “bad pork”
(such as a former senator who built nothing but basketball courts, or a
movie actor-turned- congressman who constructed road humps all over his
district) there are also many innovative PDAF projects that fulfill
constituency needs but get poor press.

Examples of “good pork” are numerous. Senate Presidents Drilon’s
collaboration with the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (FCCC) has
reduced the price of constructing a two-room school building from
P700,000 (Department of Public Works and Highways cost) to P350,000
(FCCC cost). Drilon has put P205M of his PDAF in this initiative,
effectively doubling the number of school buildings constructed using
government funds.

Senate Minority Leader Nene Pimentel has given PDAF funds to the U.P.
to train some 350 SUC (state universities and colleges) student council
presidents and editors-in-chief on leadership and legislative advocacy;
award outstanding local government leaders, recognize cooperatives-LGUs
(local government units) partnerships, and sponsor workshops on
federalism, tax reforms, party list representation, and globalization.
Senator Juan Flavier used P300M of his PDAF to complete the
construction of the Baguio General Hospital and P65M in a
LandBank-administered credit program for cooperatives and a scholarship
program for students in the 20 poorest provinces of the Philippines.

And former Negros Oriental congressman, now LandBank President
Margarito Teves used his pork barrel to provide incentives to mayors
who implemented successful family planning programs.

Do these projects promote political patronage and corruption? No. Would
regular government agencies implement these types of projects if funds
were given exclusively to them? No! In these instances, the abolition
or transfer of the PDAF would result in overpriced government services,
the non-completion of vital infrastructure, or the neglect of projects
that executive agencies routinely disregard because these do not fall
within their priorities.

Pork Barrel and the IRA

Abolishing the pork barrel will have a disastrous effect on many local
communities where a legislator’s pork barrel project is often the only
capital investment in the area. Pork barrel projects in 5th and 6th

class municipalities—road construction, repair of day care centers,
schools, and barangay halls, livelihood projects—provide employment and
much-needed infrastructure.

The budget of these LGUs can barely pay for salaries and operating
expenses, and their needs tend to fall out of the radar screen of
national and provincial authorities. A reduction in the pork barrel—
coupled with a reduction in their IRA (Internal Revenue Allotment), as
GMA has proposed, will be disastrous to poor communities.

Presidential Imperialism

Finally, PDAF abolition or reduction will further exacerbate executive
dominance over Congress. Under the present system, the President,
through the Deparment of Budget and Management (DBM), controls the
release of PDAF funds through the issuance of SAROs (Special Allotment
Release Orders) and NCAs (Notices of Cash Allocation) and
administration allies tend to get their releases faster than those in
the opposition.

Members of the House are most vulnerable to executive pressure because
any delay in the PDAF release can jeopardize projects promised to their
constituents. Senators can be more independent because their
electability is not anchored exclusively on serving constituency needs.
Abolishing the pork barrel will further weaken legislative-executive
checks-and-balances and tilt the balance of power to create an Imperial
Presidency.

Reforming the Pork Barrel through Transparent and Accountable Practices

The solution to the pork barrel issue is not abolition but greater
transparency, accountability and rationality in its utilization. What
can be done?

1. Promote greater transparency in the use of the pork barrel funds by
requiring projects to be listed in publicly available reports through
the internet and print media. Sunshine is still the best disinfectant
for wasteful government spending. Transparency and accountability can
be required through a resolution passed by each chamber of Congress,
the exercise of legislative leadership by the Speaker and Senate
President, and the observance of the freedom of information provision
of the Constitution;

2. Form advocacy and watchdog groups that will monitor public spending
and force government to open public documents for scrutiny. Groups like
Citizens Against Government Waste (www.cagw.org) and Taxpayers for
Common Sense (www.taxpayer.net) have successfully monitored pork barrel
spending in the US. In the Philippines, the USAID-initiated Transparent
Accountable Governance project (www.tag.org.ph) has data on aggregate
pork barrel spending. Unfortunately, it does not track the type of
projects implemented by legislators, making it impossible to identify
“bad pork” versus “good pork.” The neutrality or independence of some
of the partners and implementing agencies is also questionable since
they themselves are beneficiaries of pork barrel projects;

3. Reform-minded legislators can take the cue from U.S. Senator John
McCain whose website www.mccain.senate.gov has a special page called
“pork barrel spending” that lists questionable pork projects. They can
then link up with watchdog groups to ensure access to government
documents on pork barrel spending; and

4. Enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) law similar to those in Sweden,
US, Canada, and the EU that gives citizens the right to see public
records and requires public disclosure of government transactions. In
the Philippines, Action for Economic Reforms has been collaborating
with reformist legislators for a law on the citizens’ right to public
information.

If we adopt at least one of these suggestions, the public would have a
better appreciation of the pork barrel. Then the President would be
forced to find better ways to plug the deficit, as well as
intelligently and bravely address the chronic problems of the economy.

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