Slice of lies: unmasking the pig-faced corruption of patronage politics

BY JOHN PAUL OMAC

The face of corruption evolves from time to time. Now, it takes the form of a pig.

Public officials once again found themselves in the limelight of controversy as the issue of misused public funds under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) was unveiled to the public recently. The scam mainly involves the discretionary lump-sum funds granted to Senators and Representative to fund certain “development projects” which are mostly mere show-offs to deceive the public.

Dubbed as a “grand conspiracy to steal taxpayers’ money”, the Pork-barrel scam characterizes the current face of the public’s perennial nemesis—tainted with the connotations of its metaphorical greases. And with alleged trillions of pesos worth of public funds involved, it is no wonder where the citizens have been drawing their rage from lately.

Frantic race for pork
The controversial pork barrel derives its origins from the American History. By tradition, Slave owners, or masters, in the southern states of America would provide their slaves salted pork as a gift during holidays. Since there is only limited pork for all of them, as soon as the barrel containing the pork is laid on soil, the slaves would naturally engage themselves into frantic race to the barrel in order to secure their shares. Such onrush was likened to the stampede of legislators for public funds. From thereon, the pork barrel has become a symbol of patronage politics.

The first slices of pork landed on the plates of Philippine legislators during the American Colonial period in 1922 in the form of a public works act separate from the General Appropriations Act (GAA). Under the Act 3044, public works under the Department of Commerce and Communications needs to seek approval from a joint committee elected by the Senate and the House of Representatives. In 1950, the pendulum has swung to a more familiar face of the pork. The jurisdiction of choosing public works was transferred from the Secretary of Commerce and Communications to the legislators themselves. This period also started the practice of releasing amounts in lump sum, wherein the law will not have to specify the projects under it.

Under the President Corazon Aquino, pork went on to be named as the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF). This allocates P 12.5 million for representatives and P 18 million for senators. The administration boasts CDF to have “definitive parameters, equal appropriations, built-in accountability and clear transparency” which however, failed miserably due to allegations of corruption linked to it. This paved way to refurbishing the pork and renaming it PDAF under the presidency of Joseph Estrada.

Through PDAF, representatives receive an annual allocation of P 70 million while senators get an even larger amount of Php 200 million. These funds are spent through hard projects (capital outlay and infrastructures) and soft projects (social services such as financial assistance and scholarships). Due to the vulnerability of the presidential system to a political gridlock (wherein the executive and legislative branches are from opposing parties with different interests), the PDAF has been utilized as a mechanism to generate legislative support for the programs of the president. Currently, P 24.9 billion of the national budget is allocated to the PDAF. This figure doubled Arroyo’s allocation in the last year of her term which only amounts to P 10.86 billion.

Conduit of corruption
Projects identified by the legislators through PDAF are assessed by the Commission on Audit (COA) for liquidation. However, COA does not have the jurisdiction on verifying the beneficiaries of the projects. This allows legislators to allocate appropriations to bogus organizations and ghost projects—thus, blatantly stealing from the people.

This was evidenced when allegations of a P 10 billion scam against Janet Lim-Napoles, along with 23 representatives and five senators, burst forth. The scam involved a series of ghost projects under Napoles’ companies funded by the PDAF of the partaking legislators.

Napoles would usually use bogus Non-government organizations (NGOs), particularly agricultural, to solicit funds for her “projects”. She would either write to legislators in request for funds for a certain project or the the legislators themselves would indicate Napoles’ NGOs as a recipient of their PDAF. The Department of Budget and Management would then issue a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) to the legislator, and a Notice of Cash Allocation (NCA) to one of Napoles’ NGOs. According to the former employee of Napoles and whistleblower of the scam Benhur Luy, These funds would be split between the lawmaker, the official from Department of Agriculture (DA) that facilitated the process of transferring the funds, and Napoles herself. Moreover, Luy affirmed that other signatories such as the local mayor or governor would receive a commission of 10-15%, for “good measure”.

Moreover, the pork propagates the culture of political patronage. Through the pork barrel, politicians transform their constituents into clients dependent to them for largesse. The pork has been a powerful tool in buying not only the votes of the people, but even the support of subordinate officials.

Pork barrel ‘beta version’
In light of the controversies surrounding the pork barrel, various calls to abolish it arise. Last August 26, hundreds of thousands gathered in Luneta to express their dissent over the pork barrel. Several regionally-coordinated protest actions all over the Philippines have also been staged.

Prior to the protest, Aquino have already yielded to public pressure and affirmed that it is about time to abolish the PDAF despite his earlier statement that PDAF would be there to stay.

“Despite the reforms we have implemented, we have seen, as the events of the past weeks have shown, that greater change is necessary to fight against those who are determined to abuse the system,” Aquino said in his press statement in Malacañang, August 23.

However, Critics have slammed the Aquino’s stand on pork barrel abolition. The president’s call for abolition is more of a deceit, as the real step he would be taking is—once again—refurbishing and renaming the pork barrel system.

The new system would remove the lump sum allocation and would instead introduce a line-item budgeting for the projects of the legislators. Moreover, the items to be proposed would come from specific “menu” of projects which will not include soft projects anymore. The system would also introduce a public bidding process for contractors.

Youth groups have already denounced the proposed reforms of the Aquino administration. In a press conference, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Terry Ridon stated their contentions against what they call “pork barrel beta version”.

Ridon said that the proposed reforms will just revert the pork to its ancient ways, wherein the executive has full control over the budget while legislators beg the palace for their share. This is the “classic” pork which is inseparable to patronage politics.

“Under Aquino’s new version of the pork barrel, greedy legislators will flood the offices of DBM and other agencies to clinch projects. It’s the padrino system at its worst.” Ridon added.

Ridon also expressed their fear that with the integration of the pork to the national budget, the limit for each legislator’s allocation has been removed, giving Aquino’s KKK (kaklase, kabarilan, kaibigan) an unlimited share of their pork. Moreover, Ridon added that the new system would only create a system of “invisible, undetectable corruption” as the project will now be dissociated from the legislators since it is already included in the national budget.

Presidential slice
Ridon also pointed out that the pork barrel is not limited to the Php 25 billion allocation given to representatives and senators annually. According to their primer “PRIME CUTS: Dissecting the presidential pork barrel”, all lump-sum allocation in which allocation and disbursement are left to the discretion of the executive department are considered pork—including several lump sum appropriations for the president.

According to the Department of budget and management, the lump sum allocation under the discretionary release of the president for the 2014 national budget can be classified under Special Purpose Funds (SPF) and automatic appropriations (P1.25 trillion), Confidential and Intelligence funds (P1.46 billion), Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (PAMANA) funds (P7.22 billion), Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) funds (P62.6 billion), Bottom-up Budgetting (P20.03 billion)—amounting to a staggering total of P1.34 trillion.

It can also be noted that in the budget for next year, PDAF was even increased from the current P24.79 billion to P25.24 billion. Other appropriations that will be receiving an increase next year include the E-Government Fund (from P1 billion to P2.479 billion) and the dubious Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund (from P69.09 billion to P80.7 billion). Even the International Commitments Fund, which is used for pledging to international organizations and hosting of conferences, will receive its share of increase from P2.637 billion to 4.816 billion. Meanwhile, figures for DepEd School Building Program (P1 billion) and Calamity Fund (P7.5 billion) will remain the same as in the 2013 budget.

In his Privilege speech, Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares explained that these funds under the presidential pork are essentially “funds that [the president] can play around with”. He also cited that one of the main problems of the allocation of funds in the national budget is that most of the funds are devoted in lump sum amounts. He stated that this practice defeats the purpose of allocating scarce resources. “Not only is this ‘lump sum’ system a source of graft and corruption, or skewed allocation of resources, but also, because the [sic] power to allocate these lump sum amounts are given to the President, virtually negating the constitutional power of the purse of Congress.” Colmenares added.

Ultimately, the pork barrel has been utilized by the legislators not as a means to help the people, but to promote their own interests. With the upsurge of the PDAF issue, the people have to realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg—and that we are all tasked to unmask the face of corruption to its full extent. The call for the people to stay vigilant remains. The face of corruption evolves from time to time, and with the current public clamour, it is also bracing itself for yet another metamorphosis. [P]

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