Not all pork bad?

I hope I got it wrong – I mean my reading of the Supreme Court ponencia declaring the Priority Development Assistance Fund as unconstitutional. But, is the Court saying that not all pork is necessarily bad, even if it says PDAF is truly bad?

By implication, yes; and that much is implied when the Court defined its key terms. (Without even intending to, the definition has also put an end to the “confusion of meanings” that attended the pork debate. No more are we in pork Babel.)

“Pork barrel” is not defined explicitly, but “pork barrel system” is, and in so doing the Court hints strongly at what it means by “pork barrel.”
“Pork barrel system” is “the collective body of rules and practices that govern the manner by which lump-sum, discretionary funds, primarily intended for local projects, are utilized through the respective participations of the Legislative and Executive branches of government, including its members.”

I’ve taken note of the reference to “funds” that are: 1) lump-sum discretionary; 2) primarily intended for local projects; and 3) used through the participation of the Legislature or the Executive, including their members. All these three features combined describe or define our controversial “pork”.

This pork variety is proudly Pinoy, not so unlike our adobo. It bears the marks of “local concept and legal history,” as the ponencia acknowledges. Unique unto its own, it distinguishes itself from the universally understood lexical “pork barrel” that such authority as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) accords entry, as: “The state’s financial resources regarded as a source of distribution to meet regional expenditure; the provision of funds (in U.S., Federal funds) for a particular area achieved through political representation or influence.”

OED’s pork shares with pork barrel adobo at least one common feature: the use of funds for local or areal projects. Otherwise, OED’s pork hardly cares if the central funds are lump-sum or used by whoever in congress or the executive branch. In that sense, the adobo variety is restrictive and covers a narrower scope.

Definitions are only as good as the function they do in your scheme of things. Since the Court wants to establish the constitutionality of PDAF, “pork barrel” defined at this level lacks the precision to serve the purpose.
Hence, the term “congressional pork barrel” – “defined as a kind of lump-sum, discretionary fund wherein legislators, either individually or collectively organized into committees, are able to effectively control certain aspects of the fund’s utilization through various post-enactment measures and/or practices.”

Note that the use of fund is further qualified with “through various post-enactment measures and/or practices.” The operative word is “post-enactment”- meaning, after the budget bill is enacted into law, or the stage at which the president executes the budget.

The description has now taken the unmistakable shape of PDAF. Defined as such, congressional pork barrel is intrinsically illegal, as if it was born with unconstitutional genes. Now, here’s the catch.

Any salient point missing disqualifies an item for the “congressional pork barrel” label. PDAF qualifies, not because it is lump-sum per se; but, as Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno pointed out, its “infirmity is brought about by the confluence of (1) sums dedicated to multiple purposes; (2) requiring post-enactment measures; (3) participated in, not by the Congress, but by its individual Members.”

Point 1 is precisely the lump-sum nature of the fund. The “post-enactment measures” cited in Point 2 are those that require, say, the agency implementing a PDAF-funded project to submit to Congress a priority list of beneficiaries 90 days from effectivity of the budget law – thus allowing Congress to join in the execution of the budget, in violation of the principle of separation of powers as the Constitution provides. For Point 3, one example is when individual lawmakers identify projects under PDAF, which become binding to the implementing agency.

The flipside of precision is exception or exclusion. Limiting modifiers in a definition may tend to stretch the list of exemptions. A few pages into the ponencia, the Court writes: “In a more technical sense, “Pork Barrel” refers to an appropriation of government spending meant for localized projects and secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district.” This pork looks more like OED’s pork as cited above. By definition, it “fails” the Court’s congressional pork barrel test – is it legal?

The Court defined PDAF into extinction. It was swift and easy and just. What is there to replace it? Trust our lawmakers to come out with innovations of their own. With the Court’s doctrinal definitions, the bounds of constitutionality are now clearer. They would know from this experience what to heed, and not among these is greed.

Galang is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.

No comments yet.