Saturday, September 21, 2019

Alamon: Scrap the pork!

ONE of the highlights in President Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address was when he chided the assembled 297 Congressmen and women from the country’s 238 districts and 59 party-list positions for failing to support his presidential bid. And yet, in characteristic Duterte bravado, there he was addressing all of them as their newly-elected president, he chuckled.

It was a refreshing and candid take on the institution that the Filipino people have known to be the bastion of patronage politics. The rambling and irreverent yet charming demeanor of Duterte was only fitting given the artificial regality of the event.

Before him, were the political warlords and landlords most of whom were stalwarts of the dislodged Liberal Party. And he sure relished the fact that despite the formidable campaign kitty raised by the ruling party through various means, foremost of which came from the pork barrel and the disbursement acceleration program, it was not enough to defeat his populist appeal to the voting public. His smirk which stretches from Batasan to Davao confirmed as much.

But what is this we are hearing? News reports indicate that the house leadership under Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is set to disburse 80 million pesos to each congressman from the 2017 national budget, 10 million pesos more than what the previous administration awarded. There is no confirmation as of yet how much the senators will be granted but it must also be more than the 200 million pesos they received the last time as well. Does this mean the return of the Napoleses, Ben Hur Luys, and the Butch Abads under the present dispensation?

Such news is indeed discomforting given that it can be said that Duterte’s ascendancy to the presidency began when the pork barrel scandal broke out. It was the singular most damaging scandal that rocked the Aquino administration for months that the Mamasapano massacre properly book-ended. Both issues buried with finality the chances of the Liberal Party and its anointed successor in the person of the unfortunate Mar Roxas for the party’s political continuity and paved the way for the maverick Mayor of Davao to become the next president.

The source of the news, presumably a congressman himself, takes great pains to differentiate the pork set to be released to members of Congress under the Duterte administration from the previous one. The hard and soft projects sponsored by the congressmen will be identified and included in the passing of the 2017 national budget. The funding will presumably go directly to the congressmen’s preferred line agencies. These new features are supposedly all in keeping with the 2014 Supreme Court declaring the pork and DAP as unconstitutional. According to the new House Speaker, this is all consistent with Congress’ supposed “power of the purse.”

I did not know that the oversight functions of Congress over the executive’s budget include the power to shave off billions from the people’s money so that they can shower these to their respective districts on their own discretion. The amounts of 80 million pesos for congressmen and more than 200 million for the senators represent gargantuan amounts and feel more like political bribes more than anything else. Is this the mechanism that allowed the new PDP-Laban to siphon off hundreds of formerly Liberal Party stalwarts to jump ship and join the new supermajority in the house? Will additional pork barrel funds be used to push for the new administration’s legislative agenda?

Pork, no matter how lean and stripped off its fat, is still pork even if it is allowed by Supreme Court jurisprudence on mere technicalities. It maintains a costly and backward political culture wherein congressional representatives are given incentives by the executive to do their job. This needless waste of the public’s money is better directed and spent by the various line agencies without the patronizing involvement of legislators. Their primary task is not to direct the disbursement of public funds that will accrue to the increase of their political capital within their respective localities. They are in congress to legislate laws, not money for themselves.

The pork barrel issue that rocked the previous administration was a truly illuminating moment. It allowed the general public an understanding of how the political culture of patronage was maintained and operated from the national to the local with the use of the people’s money.

With Duterte’s win sans the support of Congress and pork barrel, he is in the position to also usher forth a change in the culture of self-serving political horse-trading to clear once and for all its fetid and corrupt halls.

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