Pork is a political, not a developmental tool

As the country debates the best ways of managing the current “fiscal crisis,” the focus once again has shifted to pork-barrel funds, the discretionary funds allocated to members of Congress. While some legislators have agreed to a cut in their pork, many others defend pork and justify its usefulness as a developmental tool.

The PCIJ’s investigation, however, proves otherwise. This two-part series says that pork is primarily a vote-getting vehicle and a source of political patronage. It is also a tool wielded by the executive to buy the support of Congress for the bills Malacañang wants passed. Pork, moreover, provides an opportunity for lawmakers to rake in bribes and commissions from contractors of pork-funded projects.

The series explains how pork allocations grew from P12.5 million per representative in 1990, when the practice of giving legislators pork barrel was reinstated, to the current P65 million per congressman. The first part of the series shows how pork is used to keep legislators in power. The second part examines more closely corruption in pork-funded projects.

IN 2001, 108 congressmen gave P162 million of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) — considered as the “main” pork-barrel allocation — for medical assistance to their constituents through the Department of Health and various government hospitals. The Philippine General Hospital, the country’s biggest state hospital, received P30.8 million.

The amounts are significant, and this example is often used by legislators to show that despite criticism, pork-barrel funds are actually used for the public good. In a recent TV interview, Senator Manuel Villar cited the case of government hospitals, which he said would suffer from a proposed cut in pork.

It is true that pork subsidizes underfunded state hospitals. But it is also true that lawmakers often make sure that only their constituents benefit from their allocations. Thus, even while state hospitals are strapped of funds to buy equipment or medicines, they can seldom use pork unless it is to directly benefit a legislator’s constituents even if these are not necessarily the ones who needed help the most.

This example illustrates the dilemmas of pork. As the country debates how to deal with the current “fiscal crisis,” pork-barrel funds are again in the eye of the storm. Legislators insist that pork is a developmental tool and cutting it as a means to address the budget deficit would have a negative impact on the countryside, which has traditionally been neglected by the national government.

The reality, however, is that pork is primarily a vote-getting vehicle and a source of political patronage. It is a tool wielded by the executive to buy the support of Congress for the bills Malacañang wants passed. Pork also provides an opportunity for lawmakers to rake in bribes and commissions from contractors of pork-funded projects.

Pork barrel, or simply, pork, refers to appropriations and favors obtained by a representative for his or her district. These funds are discretionary in nature, meaning it is up to each congressman or senator to identify the projects that will be funded by their pork-barrel allocation and the beneficiaries of the spending. Senators now get pork-barrel allocations of P200 million each, while congressmen are allotted some P65 million each.

Pork allocations have grown over the years-they were only P12.5 million per representative when pork barrel was reinstituted in 1990-as congressional leaders wangled bigger and bigger amounts from the executive.

Members of Congress say that pork fills a gap, as it addresses the needs of areas that are too remote or of social sectors that are too powerless, their plight is not heeded by the national government. They cite the sorry state of government hospitals as a case in point.

It is true that congressmen set aside chunks of their pork money for health care, but these sums are sometimes not used at all — despite the long queues of indigent patients at public hospitals and the stark lack of medicines and equipment in most of these facilities. The beneficiaries of legislators’ largesse may be needy, but they are also politically well-connected. Those who have no access to their congressmen do not qualify for help.

The pork appropriation that a government hospital gets is stipulated as a “subsidy for indigent patients in the district” of a congressman, and cannot be used for other purposes, including the purchase of medicine or equipment that nearly all government hospitals need badly.

A state auditor assigned to the DOH recalls how the director of a big Quezon City-based specialty hospital, seeing that no one had availed himself of a congressman’s fund, tried to persuade the lawmaker to allow the hospital to give the unused pork to patients other than those from his district. The year was fast drawing to a close and the unused money would soon revert to the National Treasury. But the congressman refused and instead asked the hospital director to transfer the amount to a trust fund so he could still use it the following year. This time, it was the hospital director’s turn to refuse.

Some congressmen have made it a point to instruct government hospitals to use their pork only for patients bearing a “political ID” issued by their offices, says the auditor. Often, though, state hospitals are informed which patients are entitled to the pork funds through a letter of recommendation personally signed by the legislator.

The letter, which identifies the beneficiary and specifies the amount he or she is entitled to, is either submitted by the patient or sent by the legislator’s office to the hospital. It’s not only the poor who get a slice of pork, though. Because the congressman can nominate anyone, even nonindigents sometimes get into the list of beneficiaries.

But legislators want to please as many people as possible, so they dispense medical assistance of as little as P2,000 to P5,000 per patient. Considering the high cost of medicine, patients — especially those with serious or chronic illnesses — soon learn the pittance barely helps them get better. In government hospitals, pharmacies are so inadequately stocked they do not even carry paracetamol and other basic medicines. Patients are advised to use their own money and buy the medicine from private drugstores. In instances like this, the pork they get serves little use.

Congressmen, however, rarely see anything wrong with their role as patrons of their districts and implementers of projects. “Take that away, ano pang gagawin namin (what else would we do)?” asks Compostela Rep. ‘Way Kurat’ Zamora. “Of course, there’s the national budget, naming of streets, but saturated na rin ang laws. And I think without that (pork), no one will run.”

The practice, however, inevitably leads to patronage, where the challenge to incumbent congressmen becomes twofold: to raise funds for projects for his district and to ensure that a patron-client relationship between him and his constituents is sustained. Congressmen always make sure their constituents know exactly who a project’s sponsors are. In the case of infrastructure, billboards prominently naming them as proponents are mounted at the project sites. Many legislators also have their names printed on medical kits or textbooks, or painted on service vehicles.

“We’re prisoners of the game,” says a congressman. “People are kept dependent and poor because that’s how you want to keep them. You don’t empower them, so they stay poor. You just buy people with project money.”

The political fates of representatives are tied more tightly to pork barrel compared to those of senators. Unlike senators who are elected to national office on the basis of national issues and name recall, congressmen are voted by constituents due to the projects and other benefits they deliver to their districts.

“You see this in nearly all campaigns,” says a veteran legislative hand who has served as chief of staff of several representatives. “The mayor or governor endorses the congressional candidate and keeps reminding voters that the candidate is the most qualified because he or she can bring back projects from Manila. The local officials don’t even bother with the person’s ability to make laws.”

Senate President Franklin Drilon himself acknowledges the importance of the pork barrel for someone aiming for a House seat. This is why senators appear to be more open to a pork cut than their colleagues in the Lower House.

“I can still win (in a place where I do not have a pork-barrel project) if I am a champion of this or a champion of that,” says Drilon. “But to a congressman, blighted ‘yan. Kahit anong isyu sa Maynila, even if he runs naked in a hotel, that’s nothing as long as he brings a project to his district. You let a senator run naked in a hotel lobby, do you think he can win in the next election?”

Even party-list representatives concede that they need pork for political survival. “We can’t fight pork because it’s institutionalized,” said one who served in the previous Congress. “Hinahanap ‘yan ng tao (People look for it). What we can do is just to look for projects that address the needs of our constituents.”

But a congressman’s constituents expect him to deliver more than just jobs or basic infrastructure like artesian wells, farm-to-market roads, barangay or social halls, basketball courts, classrooms or schoolbuildings, and health centers. Writes Lynda Jumilla, a senior reporter assigned to Congress: “The role of provider extends to, or overlaps with, that of a sympathetic friend or patron. A congressman is often asked to stand as wedding sponsor or baptismal godfather, and to do the rounds of wakes and burials. In political parlance, this is referred to as KBL — kasal (wedding), binyag (baptism), libing (burial). In most cases, the congressman is even expected to shoulder some of the expenses — a wedding or baptismal reception here, a coffin or a tomb there.”

Assuming the role of patron thus entails a lot of money, and many legislators have conveniently parlayed their pork barrel into a steady source of funding for their patronage machine. “Ordinary people consider the congressman as the ‘DSWD’ — if someone is sick or dies, they run to him,” a legislative officer says, likening lawmakers to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. “Some congressmen have limited means or nowhere to get the money for these extras so they put their pork in hospitals and save on out-of-pocket expenses except probably for the transportation.”

There is, however, a limit on how pork barrel can be spent. Using public money for weddings and baptisms is definitely out of the question. The Commission on Audit (COA) also frowns on the use of pork to help defray the placement fees of constituents seeking jobs overseas.

COA, however, has no problem with pork being forked over for the sick, needy, or dead in a congressman’s district. Thus, each year, the national government allows a substantial amount of pork barrel to be channeled to scholarships in state colleges and universities, subsidies to indigent patients in government hospitals, and funeral assistance to the poor.

Pork as a tool for political patronage, however, can extend as far as the executive branch. It is no accident, for instance, that the release of the allocations often coincides with the passage of a Palace-sponsored bill.

That pork funds have grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade can be traced to presidents in need of Congress support. The rise in pork was particularly notable during the Ramos administration, when the president and House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. used generous fund releases to convince congressmen to support Malacañang-initiated legislation. The Ramos era, in fact, became known as the “golden age of pork.”

Through the years, though, congressmen have also taken care to look after their very own. More often than not, pork-barrel funds are funneled to projects in towns and cities where the lawmakers’ own relatives have been elected to public office; thus, pork is a tool for building family power as well. COA has come across many instances where pork-funded projects ended up directly benefiting no less than the lawmaker or his or her relatives.

In Central Luzon, for example, money that ought to have gone to the purchase of a utility vehicle for rescue operations, disaster preparedness, and district operations of the provincial government was diverted instead to the purchase of a Nissan Patrol. The luxury vehicle also became the service vehicle of the congressman whose pork was used to buy it.

Down south, an engineering district never benefited from the motorcycle and photocopying machine acquired through a congresswoman’s CDF supposedly for its use. These were transferred to the field office of the proponent right after their purchase.

But in the last three years, a new thinking on pork-funded projects and its capability to secure votes has emerged. As one congressman tells it, an increasing number of his colleagues now believe that more than government-funded projects, money spent to buy votes actually dictates their political fates. “At the start of the 1998 Congress, the talk was, what’s your strategy, how are you going to win?” he says. “In 2001, there was no more talk of strategy. The question was, what’s the going rate in your district?”

He says that in one of these tête-á-têtes, a congressman from an impoverished province claimed the going rate in his jurisdiction went as high as P1,500 to P3,000 per voter. “They don’t just buy votes, they pay the antis so they will not vote,” the legislator says.

Another congressman traces the irresistible lure of money to voters to the depths of poverty in the country. “During the final hour, the one who is going to give them P50, which they can use for their needs, is one they’re going to vote for,” he says. “What you did prior to that is glossed over. It is the immediacy of the need.”

Vote buying as a tool to clinch an election victory is likely to change the way legislators use their pork barrel, says the legislator. “In our conversations, they say, ‘you know, it’s useless to have projects. Let’s just save the money and then use it at the 11th hour… If you don’t do that, when well-funded candidates come in, our projects will be forgotten. Don’t count on utang na loob (debt of gratitude) from those you helped. They’ll sell you out because it’s the present that’s important. Those projects, people don’t see it as something they should thank you for personally.'”

A few months before the 2004 elections, a publicist of several members of the House estimated that more than half of all congressmen had not touched their pork for projects, saving it instead for reelection purposes. A legislator from Mindanao also describes politicians as having turned “desperate,” with first-termers sweating the most in fear of losing their seats.

The problem with this new thinking is that the desperation among politicians can only breed and spread more desperation to the populace. As one lawmaker notes, “You have just one flashflood of money, you keep your people poor. It’s like a time bomb and it’s scary.”

All in the Family
12th Congress representatives who gave pork to their mayor-kin

Rodolfo Albano Jr. Isabela (1st) 2001 (2nd) Cabagan, Isabela 4.1M 55% Mila Albano-Mamauag Child
Felix Alfelor Jr. Camarines Sur (4th) 2002 (1st) Iriga 4.2M 56% Emmanuel R. Alfelor Brother
Genaro Alvarez Jr. Negros Occidental (6th) 2001 (2nd) Ilog, Negros Occidental 5.0M 67% John Paul K. Alvarez Child
2002 (1st) Ilog, Negros Occidental 15.0M 100% John Paul K. Alvarez Child
Abdulmunir Arbison Sulu (2nd) 2001 (2nd); 2002 (1st and 2nd) Luuk, Sulu 22.5M 100% Abdurahman K. Arbison Parent
Carmen Cari Leyte (5th) 2001 (2nd); 2002 (1st) Baybay, Leyte 22.5M 100% Jose Carlos L. Cari Child
Arthur Celeste Pangasinan (1st) 2002 (1st) Bolinao, Pangasinan 7.25M 73% Jesus F. Celeste Brother
2002 (2nd) Bolinao, Pangasinan 4.0M 81% Jesus F. Celeste Brother
Gerardo Espina Biliran 2001 (2nd) Naval, Biliran 5.5M 73% Gerardo J. Espina Jr. Child
Enrique Garcia Jr. Bataan (2nd) 2001 (2nd); 2002 (1st) Balanga, Bataan 22.5M 100% Albert Garcia Child
Oscar Garin Iloilo (1st) 2001 (2nd) Guimbal, Iloilo 4.0M 53% Oscar Garin Jr. Child
2002 (1st) Guimbal, Iloilo 15M 100% Oscar Garin Jr. Child
Jose Gullas Cebu (1st) 2001 (2nd) Talisay, Cebu 5.4M 73% Eduardo Gullas Brother
Manuel Mamba Cagayan (3rd) 2001 (2nd); 2002 (1st) Tuao, Cagayan 15M 100% Francisco Mamba Jr. Brother
Corazon Malanyaon Davao Oriental (1st) 2001 (2nd) Cateel, Davao Oriental 4.5M 60% Camilo T. Nuñez Brother
2002 (1st) Cateel, Davao Oriental 14.5M 97% Camilo T. Nuñez Brother
Angelo Montilla Sultan Kudarat 2002 (1st) Tacurong 7.66M 51% Lino O. Montilla Brother
Jose Ma. Clemente Salceda Albay (3rd) 2002 (1st) Polangui, Albay 7.0M 62% Jesus S. Salceda Sr. Parent
2002 (2nd) Polangui, Albay 2.6M 70% Jesus S. Salceda Sr. Parent
Emmylou Taliño-Santos North Cotabato (1st) 2001 (2nd); 2002 (1st and 2nd) Carmen, North Cotabato 22.5M 100% Rogelio T. Taliño Parent
Antonio Yapha Jr. Cebu (3rd) 2001 (2nd) Pinagmungajan, Cebu 5.0M 67% Jeffrey Yapha Child

SOURCE: Department of Budget and Management and Statements of Assets and Liabilities of Members of the 12th House