Pigging out on pork

PDAF racket rocks ‘daang matuwid

First of Five Parts

HE IS still about to give his third State of the Nation Address next week, President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III can already claim at least one historical distinction: he is the country’s first chief executive to purposely fatten the budget for pork, or what is officially called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

In his 2011 budget, the first he submitted to Congress, Aquino increased the budget for pork by 223 percent, or from only P6.9 billion in 2010 to P22.3 billion.

In 2012, Aquino raised the pork budget further to P24.89 billion. Next year, it is set to climb to P30 billion.

Aquino had consolidated the PDAF or the “aboveground” pork of lawmakers with their “underground” pork, or the congressional allocations and insertions for public works and other projects that former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had distributed as largesse to her most favored allies.

The upside to this: All lawmakers would now get equal servings of pork in a transparent way. Its downside: More pork means more taxpayers money wasted on the pet projects of politicians.

It may seem incongruous for an administration that pledged to follow a daang matuwid or straight path to maintain and even increase a fund that has long been considered the single sharpest image of corruption in Philippine politics. In fact, shortly after Aquino’s election in 2010, his Liberal Party (LP) allies led by Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tanada III had proposed that the new government cut pork barrel in half to help manage a huge budget deficit that was among the indubitable legacy of Arroyo.

When used the “right” way, of course, pork is supposed to help deliver the specific needs that the national government has overlooked or is unable to provide in a particular area. Or, in the words of a defender, “to make the unequal equal.” This may be why then newly elected President Aquino said that he believed pork has a redeeming value.

Pork for all

“Used equally,” said Aquino at his very first press conference as President on July 7, 2010, “the pork barrel can be an equalizer to the local government units.”

He indicated that this would be possible under his administration because pork would be spread around across the nation in a manner blind to the politics of lawmakers.

“Our governance will be, if not the total opposite, will be very, very opposite to the past government,” he said. He added that whether opposed to or allied with his administration, the districts of all lawmakers would get their pork and “the constituents would not be the ones made to suffer.”

“Everybody is entitled to the Pork Barrel, and when we say everybody, we mean the constituents,” said the President. “Nobody will be deprived of that. Now, as to what the just share is, that has to be determined.”

Yet while the pork barrel has become bigger, a PCIJ survey of 48,637 PDAF release records from June 30, 2010 to June 12, 2012, or since Aquino came to power, as well as interviews with Cabinet members, lawmakers, and some pork beneficiaries, show that it has not become any better than any of its previous incarnations.

Indeed, the PDAF is a big blotch in Aquino’s mix of firm and flabby, alter and adapt initiatives at promoting transparency and good governance.

Congressman’s call

The unbending rule in the use of pork endures to this day: The lawmaker decides for which projects he wants to use his pork, anywhere in the country he wants to, or whichever local government unit, and the individuals he wants to benefit from it.

Even a number of Aquino’s LP and administration allies today are dubious exemplars of how to circumvent a ‘menu’ of priority projects and other rules that the President and Budget Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad have spelled out for the pork barrel.

In an interview with PCIJ, Abad himself concedes that aside from the online posting of the pork projects of the lawmakers, Malacañang is unable to verify the numbers and authenticity of the “beneficiaries” lawmakers claim they have served through their pork.

Worse, Malacañang remains without a mechanism to monitor, evaluate, and catch cases of conflicts of interests, collusive bidding, substandard projects, overpricing, kickbacks and commissions, and many other anecdotes from the ground that give pork such a bad reputation.

This is even as the Budget department has also “downloaded” pork monies to the executive departments assigned to serve as implementing agencies that would bid out the projects.

The idea behind this was that lawmakers should not be allowed to take actual control of the money, thereby limiting the potential for pork misuse. Unfortunately, even with a clear menu of projects that the Executive wants PDAF to support, all executive agencies that now serve as conduits of pork money cannot change, veto, or challenge the wishes of any lawmaker. And yet, these agencies would be the culpable parties for any loss or wastage of monies, not the lawmakers and their confederates who would snitch pork funds.

DPWH: Graft in pork

Of late thus, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which is among the agencies assigned to implement pork projects, has been lopping off 10 percent from the budgets of the PDAF-funded infrastructure projects of lawmakers.

Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, confirms the popular perception that these are usually riddled with corruption. “Across. On the whole,” he says. The budget for PDAF projects that most lawmakers seek is often way above the DPWH’s standard costs for the same projects, he adds.

In the end, the Aquino administration seems to have merely adapted, not altered, the PDAF system of old so it could be a little more transparent but still acceptable to the lawmakers.

Abad admits as much while noting the difficulties involved in dealing with pork.

Clashing interests

PDAF, he says, involves a constant balancing of what are conflicting interests at core: providing goods and services to marginalized communities versus boosting the political ambition of lawmakers. Put another way, Abad says it involves “the pressing needs” of indigents versus the need for “visibility” of lawmakers, most especially the House members.

There is a clash of cultures as well, notes the official who is himself a former lawmaker. In the selection of projects, “they are liberal in the House and we are strict here (in DBM),” says Abad.

Considering the amounts involved, such a clash can have only serious repercussions. For example, the 2012 PDAF budget of P24.89-billion is apportioned thus in theory: P200 million for each of the senators, and P70 million for each of the House district and party-list representatives.

By expenditure class, the total PDAF budget is two-thirds “Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses” of P17.19 billion, and one-third “Capital Outlay” of P7.71 billion. No money is allowed for personal services or payment of salaries.

Just two decades earlier, the amounts were much smaller. In 1989, Aquino’s revered mother and democracy icon Corazon C. Aquino allowed congressmen to finance their pet projects at the rate of at most P10 million per year. But then she had also instituted the Mindanao Development Fund and the Visayas Development Fund, the forerunners of PDAF, after the EDSA people-power revolt.

It was under Fidel V. Ramos and then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., however, that pork cut a wide swath across the nation under a new name: Countrywide Development Fund or CDF, a shadow of its generic branding across the world, Constituency Development Fund.

Assuring the steady flow of pork became a common cause of all the speakers of the House who served after EDSA; all five presidents that took power since all had to agree to enroll pork in the national budget.

As Gloria Arroyo became less popular in the twilight of her presidency, she became more generous in granting lawmakers bigger pork and largesse such that by 2008, each congressman could collect up to P70 million, while the senators, P200 million, per year, in pork.

Yet aside from the CDF, later rechristened PDAF, another slush, lump-sum fund was opened to lawmakers, albeit informally and subject to lobbying with the president: the congressional allocations (CAs) or insertions in budgets of every penetrable agency, including the DPWH, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Police.

They want more

By the time Noynoy Aquino trounced his rivals in the 2010 presidential race, the House members were enjoying access to both PDAF and CA budgets in lesser or greater shares, depending on how chummy they were to Arroyo.

Under Arroyo, the PDAF went largely to the “soft” projects of the lawmakers, including financial assistance for health, scholarship, and other dole-outs to constituents aimed clearly in support of the legislators’ political stock. The CA, meanwhile, took on the form of “public works” largesse that Arroyo awarded to the lawmakers most loyal and most pliant to her wishes.

But the legislators apparently wanted much more. Arroyo had to veto a provision in the 2010 budget that the bicameral conference committee of Congress enrolled – they slashed the budget for debt service from P340.8 billion to P276.2 billion, and realigned the difference to increase their pork-barrel allocation.

The lawmakers’ growing appetite for pork would be met by a more generous Aquino administration. The net increase in pork money in Aquino’s first two years in office is multiple times more than the less than 10 percent annual growth in the national budget under his administration – from Arroyo’s P1.54 trillion in 2010 to P1.645-trillion in 2011, P1.82 trillion in 2012, and next year, P2.006 trillion.

The PDAF budget under Aquino is, in fact, three times more than the combined official budgets of the Senate and the House of Representatives over the years.

Yet while it now seems that Aquino has been fulfilling the wishes of his former colleagues in Congress for more pork, his fatter PDAF budget not only formally consolidates the funds for PDAF and CA projects, it also reflects the increase in the number of congressional districts and party-list representatives who must get their pork shares.

Palace wishlist

It is also meant to go with the Executive’s own wishlist or menu of priority projects that can be found in the General Appropriations Act (GAA). The list comes complete with the information required for the projects to be approved, such as location, names, and numbers of intended beneficiaries, and equipment specifications.

In the 2012 GAA, the Budget department noted that the process of “Project Identification” and “designation of beneficiaries” for PDAF “shall conform to the priority list, standard or design prepared by each implementing agency.” It also said that “preference shall be given to projects located in the 4th to 6th class municipalities or indigents identified under the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction by the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development.”

To ensure that the pork will go where it should, the rules say as well that a lawmaker must submit his list of projects to the committees on appropriation in the Senate and the House. Their respective chairs would then consolidate all lists and then send the result to the Senate President and the Speaker, who would then transmit the consolidated lists of the two chambers to Malacañang.

Flexible set-up

For all these, Abad admits to successful attempts by legislators to outsmart the system and push projects that in reality go against pork’s raison d’etre of promoting equal access to basic services. The set-up is also flexible enough, so much so that while Abad says “dredging” or “desilting” of creeks is now discouraged because “you don’t really know if it’s true (because) the project is really underground,” these may be allowed if they are in tandem with road repair or rehabilitation.

Abad agrees that the reforms, which have focused largely on “limiting discretion” and “shortening” the list of projects to be funded, have so far not made PDAF totally in sync with the daang matuwid. But he says that it’s patronage politics that refuses or resists to be reformed and hints that any real change lies in the legislature.

“You have to remember we go to Congress for our budget,” he says. “We go to Congress for the confirmation of our appointments, we go to Congress for our legislative initiatives, we go to Congress to answer to investigation. Politically, we have to deal with Congress.”

He says that if he were given a chance to do more about pork, he would “restrict the use and continue to infuse more transparency in how it’s used.”

“It’s best when the communities are engaged, eh,” he explains. “Of course, when that happens… the legislators are more conscious that they go to meaningful investments and projects or activities.”

According to Abad, PDAF endures “in the context also of patronage politics… that’s the only reason that’s effective because patronage politics is the politics of dependency.”

“Eventually,” he says, “(when) people have their own jobs and they’re economically more self-reliant, there (would be) really less need (for) PDAF.” He says that this is the reason why the Aquino administration is “making huge investments in CCT (the Conditional Cash Transfer program), basic education, public health, and housing.”

For some time longer, Abad says he sees no end in sight to pork. “Unless we can change our politics, PDAF will always be a necessity because poor people will always be coming to politicians.”

“In the context where poverty is still endemic,” he says he believes that the PDAF, warts and all, is “an effective tool.” – PCIJ, July 2012

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