The pork paradox

A CHIEF Executive who wants to move his agenda through Congress swiftly or win over its members to lend steady support to his policies will need more than a good persuasion skill to do the job. He will need to be a person of pragmatic bent, and he will need pork and patronage to boot. Decry it if you must, but you cannot deny it. It’s tacit, but it’s real, it’s the game people in power play.

But rare is the player who will publicly admit to using or getting pork to “grease the wheels” of legislation. You’re close to having one in DBM (Department of Budget and Management) Secretary Florencio Abad, who suggested in an interview with PCIJ (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism) that we “look at [pork barrel] in the context of patronage politics — that’s the only reason why it is effective, because patronage politics is politics of dependency.”

Pinoy pork bears the stamp, “Made in U.S.A.” In its country of origin, pork barrel politics has a long history, dating by some account “from the earliest years of the Republic.” The term itself was first used in the US Congress in the 1870s. And even in those days, a reference to the practice was “overlaid with moral opprobrium.” “It is a phenomenon,” writes Diana Evans in Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Politics to Build Majority Coalition in Congress, with a long and widely despised history in the lore of politics.”

Pork-busting, therefore, has come to form a necessary part of that history, with its own colorful stories to share. It has consistently received good press because the press itself figures as a staunch pork-buster.

Despite this, pork barrel has kept rolling out through the long succeeding years across the USA and into its colonies. That’s how it found us in the 1930s. Its staying power, said Evans, derives partly from the belief by Congress members that it helps improve the chance of re-election by way of constituent benefits.

For the Executive who believes (with Hedrick Smith) that coalition game — building coalitions and making them work — is the heart of governance, pork helps you improve your chance of winning. It’s not without cost, for sure; but it’s one you’re inclined to pay for good performance.

There’s an entertaining way of illustrating this point — watch Lincoln, the movie, if you have not seen it yet. The audacious and honest film is about Abraham Lincoln trying to forestall a potential policy problem, but in ways that are far from his most honest self. The time was January 1896 — the US civil war was about to end and Lincoln would soon start serving his second term.

Winning and ending the war were not all glad tidings. His war powers allowed him to issue the 1863 proclamation emancipating the slaves. The same powers gone with the war, he foresees the courts taking down the proclamation and fears for the freed becoming slaves again. “That’s why,” he said to his Cabinet in one scene, “I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House, and on its way to ratification by the states, wrap the whole slavery thing up, forever and aye.” That’s pushing for the equivalent of today’s “Charter Change.”

A two-thirds majority was needed for the measure to pass the House (it had passed the Senate 18 months or so earlier). Here lay the problem — he didn’t have the numbers. Even assuming that his 56 Republican party mates would stand solid behind him, he was still short by 20 votes. His only choice was to raid the Democratic Party.

Incidentally, an amusing scene in the movie (I’m amused because the lines are familiar) shows Lincoln getting barbs from two of his secretaries for his plan. After telling Lincoln early on that his scheme “seems an unwarranted intrusion of the Executive into Legislative prerogatives,” the Interior Secretary practically accuses him of behaving like a dictator. The Attorney General seconded, “Dictators aren’t susceptible to law.” He hears them, he heeds them not.

His game plan was prudent, but not beyond patronage. He told his State Secretary: “I said nothing of buying [votes]. We need 20 votes was all I said. Start of my second term, plenty of positions to fill.” That’s Lincoln the astute lawyer talking: no, he wasn’t buying votes, that’s illegal; nobody barters a job promise for anything and calls it “buying.” But he knew it wasn’t something he could be openly proud of either.

The Secretary of State, as chief operator, motioned to get into gear on his behest, and assured him: “If procuring votes with offers of employment is what you intend, I’ll fetch a friend who cans up ply the skulking men gifted at this kind of shady work; spare me the indignity of actually speaking to Democrats; spare you the exposure and liability.” And so the South was won.

Patronage, not pork, clinched the matter, but pork shares the same interesting paradox: it gets the job done and gains the ire of many.

Mario M. Galang is a governance and development specialist and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.

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