The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner, 27 September 2013 read: “Drilon confirms P50 million.”

And the subtitle is “But says not a bribe; incentive, Estrada says.”

The money refers to the amount given to each senator as part of what is now the much-maligned Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The amount was released to the senators after the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona. Senator Jinggoy Estrada was insinuating that giving P50 million was connected to removing Corona as Chief Justice.

But Jinggoy Estrada concedes that the amount given was not a bribe but an incentive. How could he admit that he took a bribe?

So what’s the fuss about this incentive in the form of pork barrel funds? And what’s wrong about giving incentives?

Parents give rewards to obedient sons and daughters. The University of the Philippines gives scholarships to its basketball athletes, even as the team is a perennial loser. Customers give tips to waiters who render good service. Businessmen award performance bonuses to their employees.

Okay, let’s call a spade a spade. PDAF is a bribe. But this is the form of bribe that is neither bad nor criminal. The act of the Executive giving PDAF to legislators is no different from the acts of parents bribing diligent children, schools bribing persevering athletes, diners bribing attentive waiters and businessmen bribing productive workers.

We have always associated bribe with something illegal and unethical. But the online Free Dictionary offers several definitions for bribe, one of which pertains to the illegal act. But another definition is “something serving to influence or persuade.” Thus another kind of bribe is one that can motivate or stimulate good behavior.

Let’s return to the impeachment trial of Corona. The impeachment trial was political, and it would have naive to think that the Executive would not give carrots to legislators to influence their votes.

Corona’s removal as Chief Justice served the common good. In the words of Senator Sonny Angara, impeaching and removing Corona were acts of “public service.”
Corona’s removal was not politically motivated. He was removed because he violated a law; he failed to publicly disclose his statement of assets and liabilities, and net worth. On top of that, the Bureau of Internal Revenue charged him with three sets of tax evasion cases

Incentive, as Senator Estrada calls it, is likewise necessary for the passage of critical legislation that serves the public good or the national interest.

Take the case of the recently passed sin tax reforms, otherwise known as Republic Act No. 10351. Undoubtedly, this is a law that yields huge benefits for the country—significant incremental revenues (approximating P34 billion in the first year alone of its implementation), financing for universal health care, and reduction of diseases associated with smoking and excessive drinking.

Yet, despite the untold benefits, the bill encountered rough sailing in Congress. To muster the votes, the bill’s champions provided for incentives in the bills. The bill says that part of the incremental revenues shall be allocated to tobacco-growing districts—for the alternative livelihood of tobacco farmers, among other programs.

Moreover, another provision on district share says a fifth of the incremental revenues for universal health care “shall be allocated nationwide, based on political and district subdivisions, for medical assistance and health facilities program, the annual requirements of which shall be determined by the Department of Health.” This is clearly pork-barrel politics, but this is necessary to have a good law passed.

The use of the pork barrel to serve the public interest is not an exception to the rule. In this regard, I find worthy reading a scholarly book titled Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress, written by Dian Evans and published by Cambridge University Press (2004).

I quote the book’s description of itself:

Pork barrel projects would surely rank near the top of most observers’ lists of Congress’s most widely despised products. Yet political leaders in Congress and the president often trade pork for votes to pass legislation that serves broad national purposes, giving members of Congress pork barrel projects in return for their votes on general interest legislation. It is a practice that succeeds at a cost, but it is a cost that many political leaders are willing to pay in order to enact the broader public policies that they favor. There is an irony in this: Pork barrel benefits, the most reviled of Congress’s legislative products, are used by policy coalition leaders to produce the type of policy that is most admired: general interest legislation. This book makes the case that buying votes with pork is an important way in which Congress solves its well-known collective action problem.

Indeed, in the Philippines, the public hates the pork barrel or the PDAF. Thus, the widespread call for its abolition. Yet, the pork barrel serves nobler purposes like the passage of the laws on sin tax reforms and reproductive health.

The pork barrel does not intend to be economically efficient. But from a broader development perspective, the benefits from pork barrel can outweigh the costs.

The proposed total amount for PDAF in 2014 is P25.24 billion, equivalent to merely 1.11 percent of the total national expenditure program in 2014. That amount is what you economists call “at the margin.” But PDAF influenced the passage of the sin taxes, which will yield increasing incremental revenues every year (and P34 billion for the first year) and reproductive health. PDAF can also influence controversial but critical measures pending in Congress like the rationalization of fiscal incentives, mineral taxation, freedom of information, etc.

As the book Greasing the Wheels points out, pork barreling is an important strategy to build majority coalitions to ensure the passage of “general interest legislation,” one that provides “a collective benefit.”

The problem, and I paraphrase my friend and colleague Manuel Buencamino, is not the pork barrel but the pigs.