The Shortcut to Perdition

Buencamino does political affairs analysis for Action for Economic Reforms. This piece came out in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 06 September 2004 edition.

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.
– Czeslaw Milosz

I love pork barrel. It keeps the power to spend taxes in the hands of all instead of one. It’s democracy in action.

One hallmark of absolute rule is the possession by one individual of
the exclusive power to tax and spend. Once this awesome power is given
to or taken by one individual, a revolution is the only way to take it
back so the Constitution, wisely, entrusted this power to Congress, not
to the President.

The House used to have the exclusive authority to initiate spending.
Today, however, that prerogative is shifting to the President.

One columnist noted the shift. He said: “Congress cannot increase the
budget submitted to it by the executive department. It can reduce the
budget, but it can never increase it.” In addition, the president does
not have to go to Congress for a new budget every year. If Congress
fails to pass a budget for the year, the previous budget is
automatically carried over.

The same columnist then argued in favor of pork barrel abolition
because he believes the job of congress is to legislate, not execute.
He ignored the fact that the job of legislation carries with it the
duty to ensure that the President will execute and enforce the laws it
has passed. That duty is called oversight.

Effective oversight, however ideal, means that Congress has the power
to add, cut, set aside, or withhold funds. In addition, it means
retaining the prerogative to reject a president’s budget until one that
is acceptable to the majority is presented. How was democracy
strengthened by surrendering these powers to one individual, the
president?

Another columnist argues, “The pork barrel system has helped perpetuate
the politics of patronage in this country.” Fine, then abolish pork
barrel for nationally elected officials. They belong to the country as
a whole, not to any locality. For this reason, sectoral or party-list
representatives, whose constituency is not geographical, should belong
to the Senate not to the House. In the same vein, their spending-like
like the senators’-transcends geographic boundaries so it should
complement, not duplicate, local spending.

It is the other way around with the congressmen, who represent
localities. They have to make sure, first of all, that their locality
gets its fair slice of the national pie. Their spending is oriented
towards local needs first and national interest second, although it
would be nice if local spending also complemented national interests.

The Senate’s function with regard to spending is to safeguard the
interest of the whole over its parts. That is why spending bills
initiated by the House are reviewed by the Senate and presented to a
committee from both Houses for a compromise between national and local
concerns. Can there be a more democratic way of balancing national and
local interests?

Some would argue that abolishing pork will save money because it
eliminates the waste from corruption. They are missing the point. Their
proposal involves transfer not elimination; one crook’s loss becomes
another crook’s gain.

The solution is not to take away the House’s power over spending, but to rationalize it.

As it is, the current process starts with a pre-baked pie to be divided
among members of Congress. Consequently, a member is forced to find
something to spend his cut on.

A more rational approach would be to reverse the process. Some
localities have more needs than others so it is better if the pie is
not pre-baked and divided equally.

The pie should only be as large as the country’s finances can afford
and divided up equitably. It should force congressmen to prioritize
their share according to their constituency’s needs.

The fiscal crisis is serious, but surrendering the power over spending
to one individual is not the wisest road out. It’s the shortcut to
dictatorship and hell.

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