THE SECOND Million People March held on Oct. 4 at Ayala Avenue had all the looks of rage reined in. The scrap-pork marchers have far little to show by way of numbers, but there is some to offer in terms of reason. The rift among them was real, but restrained — for how long, that is the question.
It started as an overwhelmingly spontaneous action on Aug. 26 at the Luneta, sparked by a P10-billion scam involving a pork barrel item named Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The crowd was without a leader, individual or group, and it was largely unorganized. Ground rules governed the event, ensuring that no one ruled over anybody: imaginary cordons confined each organized group within its assigned area, and kept the organized from the unorganized; you could speak to a crowd but only in your group. You raised your own call, brought your own demands, showed your own placards — all about pork. Nobody could speak on behalf of the whole crowd.
Festive and playful but never flippant, it was an action of Filipinos flying into a rage. The arrow flew as the bow released its tension, but it was an arrow without a head.
The second, Oct. 4 event saw the ground rules changed, lending it the features of a unified action, a political rally in the classic sense. Speaker after speaker took center stage in their turn addressing a common crowd. Its number would depend on your bias, but falling within the range of 3,000 to 10,000.
After more than a month since Aug. 26, the pork busters have finally come around to agreeing on what they want — the arrow seemed to find its head. Put forward during the rally was the #ScrapPork Network’s “consolidated” set of eight demands.
Looking quickly at the list, four demands address the Congress (as taken up below); one addresses presumably the Ombudsman, “To have all cases against the lawmakers involved in the pork barrel scam filed no later than 5 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2013”; another one the COA (Commission on Audit), “to release its audit of presidential funds under Aquino’s term”; and one addresses civil society organizations, “to be involved in the budget process of local government units.”
Let me take up selectively those demands that I feel are most problematic.
One of the four demands addressed to the Congress calls on the “Senate to remove all forms of pork barrel from the 2014 budget.” “Pork barrel” as used here, may mean, in its narrow sense, the ex-PDAF item. But the #ScrapPork Network’s definition covers a far broader meaning, as set out in its Unity Statement 2.0, like this: “We define pork barrel as all state funds subject to discretionary use and/or allocation by officials in all branches and in all levels of the government.”
The definition singles out “discretionary” fund because it is assumed vulnerable to corruption, which is correct. But correcting for vulnerability does not instantly demand scrapping the fund altogether; clarifying accountability, transparency, or stricter monitoring may in fact do the job. (The demand for the Congress “to pass the People’s Freedom of Information bill” is relevant here.) “Discretion” is given to allow for management flexibility. Which of the funds serve the purpose and which do not, will never be known by looking for all discretionary funds, labeling them “pork,” and throwing them all into a pit.
Another demand asks the “legislative branch of government to create an independent commission to review all laws and orders creating lump-sums in the government budget for specific purposes, and check the efficiency of these allocations.” Like discretionary fund, a lump-sum fund is singled out because of vulnerability, but this demand avoids arbitrariness by merely calling for a “review” of all laws creating lump sums. Its problem lies elsewhere. Both Houses of the Congress have respective permanent committees in charge of the annual budget, so what’s the need for an “independent commission” to do the job? Besides, unless you need a law to create this commission (in which case, why?), the “legislative branch” is not the proper body to do it.
Presumably addressed also to the Congress is the demand to “realign the President’s Social Fund and Special Purpose Funds to line agencies.” Why zero in on these funds? I think for at least three reasons, each known by its key word: presidential, discretionary, and lump-sum. If so, why waste time going through the motion that the two preceding demands are expected to set into? This demand suffers again from the indiscriminate habit of some budget experts to shovel all funds into one heap because these are lump-sums and under the discretion of the President, and call them “presidential pork.” They confuse propaganda with policy.
Finally, calling on “the Aquino administration to open the bicameral budget deliberations to the public,” is a good one but misplaced: “bicameral” is bicameral, not presidential.
The arrow head looks blunt.
The author is a governance and development specialist and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).