PORK AGAIN. For sheer size, the so-called presidential, PNoy pork is worth a second, closer look.

The alleged amount is hefty at 1.3 trillion: about one-third of the national budget for 2004. Coming out with a staggering amount with a “PNoy pork” label stuck on it is a politically clever move: it pushes the Executive into the same line of fire heretofore aimed only at the Legislature and projects an image of a double-talking PNoy. The trick is in redefining “pork” your way.

My own digital dictionary defines “pork barrel” with a sense so simple that it means only “the use of government funds for projects designed to please voters or legislators and win votes.” And so to the world’s pork lexicon, the more intelligent among us added their own definition, such that “pork” is now any or all of the following:

1. A lump-sum item in the budget;

2. Funds allocated and released at the Executive’s sole discretion.

A definition is only worth its function in your own scheme of things. Our new “pork” so defined now covers more than a trillion pesos worth of budget items, in place of a measly 25 billion for PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund). What does it gain thereby, aside from our attention? It seems to impress on us its concern about corruption, and points to its choice of budget items as those prone to misuse. Thus, its advocates want them abolished.

Is the trillion-peso list warranted? Try these items from the list.

Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA — The annual share of local government units in the national internal revenue taxes which is automatically released to them, in accord with the Local Government Code of 1991. IRA is lump-sum, ergo it must be PNoy pork. So what? What do we get from calling it pork? The IRA is released to each LGU directly, as the Code provides, without need of any further action, and “which shall not be subject to any lien or hold back that may be imposed by the national government for whatever purpose.”The alleged amount for 2014 is 341.5 billion. On what account is it vulnerable to Executive corruption?

Debt Service Fund — An amount that is automatically budgeted to pay public debt, as the law, Executive Order No. 292, provided. The same law builds a fence around the fund by providing that it shall be used only for debt payment. The alleged amount is 352.7 billion. Lump-sum, ergo pork. But does calling it so change anything?

(Incidentally, another lump-sum item, Budget For School Buildings, allegedly amounts to 200 billion for 2014. The problem is a budget item under this label does not exist. The amount would seem even more farcical if you know that 200 billion is almost as big as the entire 2013 budget of the Department of Education.)

Lump-sums are necessities borne by the very nature of budgeting itself, which is “primarily forecasting of revenues and expenditure for government programs and projects.” Forecasts fall short of what’s expected and you allow for the unexpected by setting aside lump-sum amounts.

The trillion-peso pork idea also qualifies as “pork” any fund that is used at the “sole discretion” of the Executive, where “discretion” means the freedom to decide on what to do in a given situation.

Bias blinds. How you look at discretion depends on your purpose. If your crusade is against corruption, discretion is a liability. You’d adhere to the belief that equates discretion with corruption, such that, less or more discretion yields less or more corruption, in direct fashion. If the reasoning looks rigidly linear, it’s because it is assuming a world where no counter-check to the side effects of discretion exists.

But corruption comes in complex ways, in varying conditions, for different reasons. In real life, greater and clearer accountability may keep discretion from growing into corruption. Experts are also wont to say that corruption is a crime of calculation, not of passion. When the risk of getting caught is low, the penalties mild, and the rewards great — people tend to get corrupted. Crowd vigilance, free access to information, the right motivation may serve as counter-check

The focus on corruption comes at a cost, largely at the expense of public service. It tends to lead to centralization, command-and-control mode of management, by-the-book compliance with procedures, red tape. If you change your seat and look again, you’ll find that discretion actually confers some wonder. Good performance needs ample room and time to move around and move quickly; it presupposes the right degree of flexibility, or discretion. Discretion is a tool for quick decision and action.

My overall point is lump-sum and discretionary budget items are not by themselves bad: how you look at them depends on your purpose. The trillion-peso list may have served its propaganda purpose, but not clarity.

Its pork is phony.

Galang is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).