August 2013

Lady’s choice

What will have more profound impact on society, Janet Napoles going to jail or a bunch of senators and congressman going to jail?

Media has been fueling speculations about the Napoles surrender as if it was a privilege that was accorded to her because of her irresistible influence and connections or that it fits with some kind of Palace masterplan to destroy the opposition.

It was not a privilege. Napoles surrendered to the president because she believed he could guarantee her safety. She had accused the NBI of extortion. Who in their right mind would surrender to the very people you accuse of extortion?

She was also a threat to those legislators who are suspected of conniving with her. She could bring them down with her.

She tried to surrender to Cardinal Tagle but he, unlike other bishops, knows the line between church and state. He refused to become involved.

Ultimately, Napoles was the only one who could decide whether to surrender or not and to whom to surrender. When she decided to surrender to the president, he was left with one of two options, accept her surrender or keep looking for her. If you were the president what would you do?

The more important issue is the speculation that the surrender of Napoles was some kind of masterplan to destroy the opposition. The spin fits perfectly with the attempts of the suspected associates of Napoles to deflect the people’s anger.

Remember the initial reaction of the suspects when the Napoles case first hit the front pages? They asked why only us the opposition; what about administration allies? They also decried the drip-drip of information coming from the Commission on Audit and the Justice Department.

They had a good propaganda line until the COA report finally came out and the entire list of legislators and NGOs were published. That forced the suspected legislators to shift gears. They began to point to the P3B error involving Rep. Zamora and the Luis Abalos who turned out to be BenHur, as if those minor errors that the COA clarified immediately were enough to discredit the report in its entirety. They began characterizing the report as riddled with errors, asking how it can be trusted if such blatant mistakes were not seen right away. Well, you can’t blame suspects for exploring every avenue to save their asses.

As early as the midnight presscon of DILG secretary Mar Roxas one reporter already tried to put a negative spin on the Napoles surrender. She was so insistent on injecting doubt that an exasperated Mar Roxas asked her, “ano ba ito, sala sa lamig sala sa init?”

The reporter who I assume was only trying to put a dramatic angle to the story unwittingly plowed the field for Jinggoy Estrada to plant seeds of doubt in an otherwise straightforward surrender.

Today Jinggoy Estrada faced media and said, “I’m not saying that she will be used. But there are chances since she is already in government custody. As I mentioned earlier, some unscrupulous elements might just put words into her mouth.” In other words, it’s all part of a script?

It would be great if everyone involved in the scam were to land in jail, but what if you had to plea bargain with Napoles to get the senators and congressmen, would you? I would.

I would allow her to plea to a lesser sentence, even probation, if she can give testimony that will lead to a conviction for those senators and congressmen. Because that will have a more profound impact on the national psyche. In a few years, Napoles will just be another crook convicted of corruption but a bunch of senators and congressmen going to jail is for the history books.

Napoles could turn from a heel to a hero, if she makes the right choice.

Can pork really be abolished, legally or otherwise?

Whether pork should be abolished is a different question from can it be abolished.

Following the successful Rizal Park protests on August 26 spontaneously organised by netizens through social media against the abuse of pork barrel, the question now has to do with next steps. The president sought to pre-empt the rally on Friday, the 23rd by abolishing the Priority Development Assistance Fund, only to reinstate with the same breath congressional earmarks through a different mechanism.

It became apparent from his remarks that pork barrelling would remain, albeit with more stringent constraints placed on the identification of projects and awarding of contracts to suppliers. With three years remaining in the presidency of Mr Aquino, doubts regarding the effectiveness and durability of his reforms began to sink in.

Twitter hashtags #ScrapPork and #MillionPeopleMarch were soon brimming with suggestions on how to name pork’s new incarnation. Interesting acronyms such as BABOY, LIEMPO, NACAW and KUPIT bubbled up across the ether, expressing the cynicism people felt towards the president’s determined effort to re-insert pork in line agency budgets. Many were calling for the abolition of the president’s special purpose and discretionary funds, which are seen as no different from congressional pork.

Like the EDSA uprisings which relied on mass media as in 1986 and SMS text as in 2001, this uprising relied heavily on social media, which is how the original idea was conceived and spread. Unlike the EDSA revolts, this one does not seem to be calling for regime change but instead seeks changes in policy to be made.

It can be characterised as a taxpayer’s revolt against the politics of patronage and privilege that the country is so prone to. Although leaderless and inchoate, the message from the masses seemed clear: (1) they want pork abusers to be investigated and prosecuted, (2) they want greater transparency and accountability in the use of their taxes from their leaders, and (3) they are for the total abolition of pork, including the president’s own special purpose and lump sum funds,

With regards to the first point, the investigations into abuse are nearing completion. The Department of Justice will be filing cases soon, Sec De Lima says, although the prosecution of cases will take some time to culminate (Clarification: this refers to the Janet Napoles scandal; the Interagency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council is about to commence a separate investigation into the anomalies uncovered by the COA special audit of PDAF from 2007-09). On the second point, the administration has already been providing information regarding PDAF releases on the Department of Budget and Management’s website.

With these funds being abolished and new pork being reinserted into line agency budgets, a freedom of information law will be needed to facilitate greater access to information, and a whistle blower protection law would encourage whistle blowers to come forward without fear. The third and final point on the abolition of pork is perhaps the stickiest of them all. Let me explain…

Policy questions crystallised

What to do with pork?

There are several policy questions, which the PDAF scam has crystalised. The main policy question is: what to do with pork? The palace wants to keep it. Legislators sensing the changing political winds are saying they are willing to give it up, so long as the president does the same. A principled few point out that pork does have its uses in a representative democracy. The people on the street, as previously mentioned, want it abolished completely.

To be legally enforceable, however, the abolition of pork would have to be enshrined in law. The enabling legislation would have to prohibit congressmen and senators from lobbying for certain projects. This might be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court given the powers of congress, the lower house in particular, over the budget. Abolishing the president’s slush fund on the other hand can be done legally by amending the charters of the PCSO and PAGCOR and overriding EO 683 covering Malampaya royalties.

The abolition of congressional pork can only be achieved if congressmen, senators and the president voluntarily abstain from it. That is the crux of the problem. Those who want to abolish pork would either have to create a radical, moral transformation in our leaders. Barring that they will have to call for constitutional change, and that is probably not in the offing.

But with proper prudential measures in place, pork can at least be scrutinised and evaluated more closely. The only problem is that without a legal mandate to bind successive administrations, such measures could be easily reversed. And even if such procedures were codified in law, nothing prevents the next congress from relaxing them later on when public anger has subsided.

This leads us to two supplementary policy questions. The first one has to do with how to improve the calibre of politicians running for public office. The second question has to do with development planning, on how it should proceed so that local needs are appropriately identified, prioritised and met.

How do we improve the calibre of our politicians?

The abuse of pork is really a symptom of a much deeper problem in our state: the weakness of our political parties, making elected members of congress extremely vulnerable to the patronage of Malacañang and consequently more compliant to its wishes. Conceptually, pork was a way for congress to exert the power of the purse through the budget. It has not worked out that way in practice. The palace still has a way of withholding pork from specific congressmen unless they kowtow to its preferred line.

A weak president suffering from illegitimacy can use pork to stave off an impeachment complaint and other embarrassing congressional investigations. The executive then becomes hostage to the whims of a rent-seeking congress. A strong president on the other hand can use pork to railroad legislation through congress and produce poor public policy, as a result. Congress becomes compliant, addicted to Malacañang’s patronage in that situation.

The question on how to maintain the integrity of both branches in the face of patronage from Malacañang and rent-seeking from congress can be answered if we were to look at electoral campaign finance and political party reform measures as well as compensation for elected officials. I have written extensively on this already.

If we were to follow the pattern set by many modern democracies, the Commission on Elections would be given the task of administering election campaign funds. The distribution of these funds could be based on a prescribed formula, for example, pro-rata based on the votes received by each accredited party at the last election. This would mean that if an elected official switches parties, the funds that his party is entitled to at the next election would not transfer to the new party. They would remain with the former party.

This reduces the incentives for turncoats. It also prevents the administration from withholding the funding of opposition parties, since the budget of Comelec would include the state subsidies for all political parties, which would guarantee that all of them receive the state funds that they are entitled to based on law. The compliance unit of Comelec would need to be beefed up to conduct proper audits of election campaigns.

Making the provision of taxpayer funds to accredited parties conditional on their adherence to equal opportunity in the selection of candidates, as evidenced by a low threshold for political dynasties would also promote a merit-based selection of candidates for public office. Political dynasties will not be sanctioned through state funding. If political dynasties want to compete in elections, they would have to do so outside the state funded system. This would provide the electorate with a real choice through viable alternatives. Raising their pay and providing allowances to deal with their work in their electorates would keep them honest.

How do we improve the identification and prioritisation of development projects?

If the calibre of our politicians is improved and their integrity protected through campaign finance, political party reform and better pay, it follows that the formulation of public policy would be improved. Consequently, the identification and prioritisation of development projects would have a better chance of following a more rational process. This is essentially what taxpayers get in return for supporting their politicians and their parties adequately. In a representative democracy such as ours, it is the right of congresspersons to press for the interest of their constituents. Whether local projects can then be characterised as pork depends on the basis for their approval.

If funded by the administration to buy votes, with less of a consideration for economic and social benefits relative to other alternatives, then yes, they could be considered pork. If on the other hand, these projects are properly scrutinised for their economic and social returns and productivity dividends, then they would be considered good public policy. The bottom-up budgeting approach which the administration is currently pursuing may lend itself to both pork barreling and rational planning.

In the end, no system however well-designed will withstand the pressure to conform to established norms of behaviour unless the people that manage it are of exceptional character and skill. To promote an inclusive, participative budget process when our political process is exclusive and favours only the connected and powerful few would simply guarantee that the process is rigged from within.

Policy tools need sharpening

In the final analysis, both the government and the people it represents and hopes to govern will have to come to some kind of new arrangement. The August 26 movement has signalled that the old status quo cannot hold. The question now on everyone’s minds is what the new state of affairs will look like. What policy tools are best suited to address the problem presenting itself through the PDAF scam?

The measures announced by the president last Friday fell short of the mark. They failed to measure up to the expectations that the public rightly held regarding what to do with PDAF in the first instance, and with pork more broadly. Prosecuting abusers and increasing transparency, two of the demands of protesters are arguably happening, but abolishing pork altogether is a bit more challenging.

For one, the constitution gives congress the power of the purse. Within a representative democracy, this gives legislators the right to pursue the interests of their constituents in setting the budget. They might voluntarily abstain from pork, but they cannot be prohibited from it. The abolition of the president’s discretionary funds on the other hand can be achieved legally. New legislation could require the proceeds of gambling revenues and mining royalties to go to the national treasury to fund general appropriations submitted to Congress for approval.

An alternative I would suggest is to create two trust funds: one from the Malampaya account of the Department of Energy to pay for climate change mitigation and adaptation programs in the island of Palawan and other vulnerable communities, and another from the president’s social and charity fund from the PAGCOR and PCSO respectively to provide deferred loans to tertiary students and fund universal health care through the National Health Insurance Fund.

With regard to congressional pork, the measures announced by the president last Friday need augmentation. An FOI law will equip the citizenry with the necessary tools to examine the way their taxes are spent. Beefing up the capacity of the Commission on Audit, Department of Justice and Ombudsman to undertake forensic accounting and electronic surveillance will help preserve the integrity of the system. Codifying the new administrative budget measures in law will tie the hands of successive administrations to conduct budget processes above board.

Finally, to transform our politics, we need campaign finance and political party reform measures. You can keep fiddling with the system. But if the people running it are selected and then compensated in such a way that makes them susceptible to rigging the system, all this reform will come to nothing in the end. To improve the process, one needs to improve the people, through better selection and compensation.

To use an analogy in business. You hire someone to run the shop for you, but you don’t really monitor that person’s performance properly, you don’t pay him adequately, and you give him unlimited discretion to make decisions. After a while you suspect that person of robbing the firm, blind. You conduct an audit and find out that he has been charging his personal expenses to the firm.

You are upset, you withdraw all his expense accounts and limit discretion. Do you really think that having had a taste for easy living, this will stop the shenanigans? The answer, is no, so you fire him. But replacing the person won’t deal with the problem unless you change the way the firm handles employee selection, pay, performance and decision rights. The government is currently focused on improving performance monitoring and limiting discretion, but it also needs to address the way we select and elect our politicians and the way we pay them.

Abolishing all forms of pork through legal mandate is close to impossible, but improving our political system to prevent the abuse and misuse of pork is actually quite do-able.

PDAF, BUB, August 26 and 2016

President Benigno S. Aquino III calls for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund at the President’s Hall of Malacanang Palace on Friday, (August 23). The announcement was made in the aftermath of the alleged Php10B pork barrel scam. (Photo by Gil Nartea/ Lauro Montellano Jr./ Malacanang Photo Bureau)

Just as he did with the RH Bill, the president came late to the party and led from behind in the scandal  involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of Congress by belatedly bowing to public calls for its abolition.  Although as Winnie Monsod noted he did not indicate this meant the abolition of all forms of pork barrel. With nationwide protests slated for August 26, his administration could not afford to be seen on the wrong side of history, not after mouthing anti-corruption slogans like Daang Matuwid and Kung Walang Kurap, Walang Mahirap in the 2010 and 2013 elections.

This is perhaps his only out, after a former treasury chief showed how large his own discretionary funds are, dwarfing that of Congress. His initial tone deaf and dismissive response to public calls for PDAF abolition threatened to turn it into his “Flor Contemplacion moment”. This is a reference to the hanging of a domestic helper in Singapore by that name accused and convicted of killing her ward. The Ramos government’s lethargic response at the time to seek a commutation of her death sentence and vigorously raise a diplomatic protest with the Singaporean government was judged inadequate and subsequently led to virulent protests.

What the angry twittering masses behind the August 26 rally fail to grasp, however, and this I believe should be credited to the president, is that the scale of congressional pork barrel would not have even been known if he had not taken the decision to make it more transparent in the budget. Secondly, the Commission on Audit special report conducted under the tearful eye of Ms Grace Pullido-Tan, its chair, would not have even been possible without President Aquino’s leadership.

The problem was the Palace’s foot-dragging made it seem part of the problem rather than the solution. At first it responded to the concerns of the masses over the alleged Php 10 billion scam involving Janet Napoles’s syndicate of NGOs by window dressing, making the DSWD the accrediting agency for NGOs receiving PDAF allocations. This was wrong since as the COA report revealed, releasing public funds to NGOs without an appropriations law or ordinance violates the government’s own procurement policy.

The COA report, incomplete as it was gave an indication as to the scale and scope of corruption and abuse. About 75 per cent of audited PDAF went to NGOs. Thus, the 192 members of the 14th Congress that were found to have engaged in the practice are in fact liable. The DOJ does not even have to prove that the funds were diverted back to them.

The senators and congressmen who want to wash their hands clean by either saying the money was liquidated appropriately or that monitoring of funds is the sole function of the executive branch don’t have a leg to stand on. The only defence they can mount is that their signatures in authorising the allocation of PDAF to those NGOs were forged as 22 of them have done.

Even assuming their signatures were forged, why would it have taken them so long to protest against it? It stands to reason that anyone who had P70 to P200M allocated to them would be adamant in getting it released for their use. Why has it taken them 3-5 years to denounce the siphoning off of their PDAF? If anything, they would be negligible for allowing it to go on for so long.

So any which way you look at it, the legislators in question have something to answer for. True, the DBM’s record-keeping has been found wanting. In fact the COA report only covered a mere 39 per cent of the total P115 billion worth of PDAF released from 2007 to 2009 because DBM could not even identify correctly the legislators who approved the majority of funds amounting to some P70.4 billion.

Even so, the legislators that have been rightly identified need to apologise to the public for allocating their PDAF to NGOs and take leave from their party if they are currently in public office or loose whatever committee chairmanships and privileges they have enjoyed as such.

British and Canadian examples

In the UK parliamentary allowance scandal of 2009, both PM Gordon Brown and Opposition Leader David Cameron issued apologies to the British public for the excesses committed by members of their parties who used housing allowances to invest in the property market. Subsequently, an independent body was set up to determine the compensation and allowances for MPs, and the disbursement of the same was made more available to the public.

In the current scandal in the Canadian senate, PM Harper’s chief of staff resigned after being implicated, a number of senators were suspended from their party and issued public apologies for their abuse of privileges. In both the UK and Canadian cases, a Freedom of Information request led to uncovering the facts and those that had been found to have abused their privileges were ordered to repay every last penny they had unlawfully charged to the public purse.

The amounts in question ran only in the hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars per representative or senator. In the Philippine case, the amounts run into the billions of pesos (which amounts to millions of dollars!). And yet the legislators in question do not seem to be ashamed in the least. Some of them in fact have the gall to now champion the scrapping of pork, when they in fact have been identified by the COA for certain anomalies in their use of pork, such as Majority Senate Leader Peter Cayetano whose release of P2.7 million to baranggays in Taguig were found to be deficient, and whose wife exceeded her PDAF by P8.5 million.

BUB, another acronym for pork masquerading as reform

The protesters heading for the Rizal Park on August 26 would probably say that there needs to be an investigation and prosecution of those involved in the PDAF scam. The DOJ has said that it will be issuing indictments soon. The case could easily drag on beyond 2016, after the president steps down. The senate and the house seem poised to investigate their use and abuse of PDAF. Senator Cayetano has endorsed former Senator Panfilo Lacson to head an independent body to investigate it, which found support from the President. This was ridiculed by many including Senator Miriam Santiago who questions Lacson’s ability to impartially run the investigation.

The politicisation of the investigations and reform process is becoming a problem. This is precisely what shouldn’t be happening as abuses cut across party-lines. Take the unveiling of a fund associated with the Department of Budget and Management’s Bottom Up Budgeting approach or BUB. This is a fund amounting to P20 billion to be allocated by Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas to local governments. It is no secret that Mr Roxas is the Liberal Party’s presidential nominee to succeed Pres Aquino in 2016. Budget Secretary Abad is the party’s chief ideologue.

The fund’s existence was apparently leaked by congressmen from within the LP. It was reported that many of them were dissatisfied with the manner in which this fund has been set up: to give Mr Roxas the role of a padrino in handing it out. This charge was denied of course by Messrs Roxas and Abad who do not deny the existence of BUB funds but instead say that legislators were supportive of it.

If we needed a reminder for why PDAF and its predecessor CDF (countrywide development funds) came into being, this is it. Pork barrel has evolved through the years from a means for the executive to control congress and get it on its side, to a means by which the legislators can wrest control of patronage from Malacañang by limiting its ability to withhold pork to congress. BUB seems like an attempt by the Palace to retake control, at a time when congressional pork has been abolished.

Just as an aside, what the reaction of local LP stalwarts shows is that party discipline is weak. These legislators probably do not plan to endorse Mr Roxas in 2016. They are probably planning to jump ship again just like they did in 2010 when President Aquino’s lead in the polls was evident. Given the lead Vice President Binay now has in public polls, it would seem they might be hedging their bets both ways, or in the very least, they want to hand out the BUB funds themselves to local officials, to be the sole padrinos in their districts.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Mr Binay has been receiving pork with the president’s blessing, worth P200 million a year, so that this is simply a way of evening up the playing field for Mr Roxas and the Liberal Party. Given that the president has abolished pork (which presumably includes the vice president’s), shouldn’t his heir apparent refuse to use it too? By politicising the bottom-up budgeting approach, a key reform of President Aquino’s administration, Abad and Roxas could be tarnishing their reformist credentials and weakening the very institutions they seek to build.

To 2016 and beyond

A number of prospective presidential and vice presidential contenders could be ruined by this scandal. Senators Bong Bong Marcos, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada all have plans to run for higher office. All were tagged as part of the original PDAF scam. Senator Peter Cayetano may also have plans to run for higher office in 2016 and was also given special mention in the COA report for irregular PDAF releases. Mar Roxas could sully himself if BUB is perceived to be used for political motives.

You might think this is the end of the road for pork, but don’t count pork out, just yet. As Manolo Quezon points out, pork has a funny way of resurfacing under a different guise. Winnie Monsod believes it will revert back to the old way of being hidden, inserted in line agency budgets, as was the practice before President Aquino made it more transparent. This could be an unintended consequence of abolishing PDAF.

What the inchoate masses gathering on August 26 fail to understand is that unless PDAF is replaced with something more suited to a modern democracy, it will be reincarnated in some other shape or form even if the current set of PDAF abusers are put behind bars. The real answer in my view is for the state to provide campaign finance to accredited political parties.

Without such state support, congressmen and senators will find a way to access state funds anyway through some form of pork barrel or worse, they could go underground and raise money through illegal means. Of course they may harass legitimate businesses and rich individuals for donations with adverse consequences for policy making if they win. The piso-piso campaign to raise money has very limited impact in a country with very large disparities in income.

Perhaps the president who until now has been so focused on proving he can make government work, as in he wanted to prove that PDAF could be used properly for good, can now lift his gaze towards undertaking real reform that would not only restore systems to the way they were under some imagined golden age, but transform them above and beyond what they are currently capable of becoming.

To use an automotive analogy, which I am sure the motoring enthusiast in him would appreciate, imagine that you have an old 1950s engine which you have worked so hard to restore, but is still leaking fuel and is inefficient. You can choose to keep fiddling with the old system by adding dashboards with indicators that tell you if fuel is leaking (i.e. making expenditure more transparent) or you might decide to overhaul the engine completely with a new up to date model that injects fuel well and does not leak with indicators that tell you what is happening under the hood.

Having a modern democracy entails campaign finance and political party reform combined with beefed up integrity measures as well as an adequate level of compensation for elective officials to remove the incentive that lead to the plunder of public funds. That is the reality that neither the president, nor the people massing at Rizal park on Monday, have yet realised needs to be confronted if we are to have a sound democracy in the lead up to 2016 and beyond.

Senator Bam Aquino: abolish PDAF, setup a People’s fund instead!

Editor’s note: While we don’t publish press releases, we think that this one deserves some space. Hit us in the comment section for your reaction to this proposal to the Pork Barrel/PDAF scam. The Senator intends to file a bill on it.

This is the full text of a press release which we received from Senator Bam Aquino’s office:

ABOLISH PORK, SET UP PEOPLE’S FUND — BAM

Senator Bam Aquino, who earlier suspended the use of his office’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) “until charges are filed” against the perpetrators of the P10B “PDAF scam”, now calls for the abolition of the pork barrel through an innovative measure. He proposes, instead, for a “People’s Fund” to be set up, to give Filipino taxpayers greater control over where a portion of their income taxes should go.

The People’s Fund “seeks to revolutionize public budgeting and funding by giving the taxpayers of the Philippines clear and concrete choices on where their money should go.”

It provides a mechanism for five percent (5%) of an individual’s income tax to be allocated to either of the following: (a) an accredited charity or civil society organization; (b) a national or local priority government project; or (c) a legitimate political party.

“To be clear, hindi ito bagong buwis na ipapataw sa mga tao. Ang People’s Fund ay manggagaling sa binabayad na ng mamamayan na tax kada taon. Ang pinag-iba lang ay merong kapangyarihan ang mga taxpayer na piliin kung saan pupunta ang porsyento ng perang ito. Ginagawa na ito sa ibang mga bansa; panahon na, na gawin ito sa Pilipinas.”

“After all,” Aquino continues, “our estimate of the People’s Fund is around ten billion pesos. Mas maliit pa rin sa papalitan niyang PDAF na twenty-five billion pesos. Sa kadulu-dulahan, nakatipid pa rin ang gobyerno ng malaking halaga na ngayo’y napupunta sa pork barrel.”

Under the bill, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) shall establish the mechanism that would enable individual taxpayers to select beneficiaries upon filing of their annual income tax returns. Meanwhile, an inter-agency committee led by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) shall determine the eligibility of organizations and initiatives, and shall likewise set the conditions, guidelines, and reporting requirements for the receipt and use of the funds by the benefitting organizations.

“People are sick and tired of seeing their taxes go to waste when precious money could instead be channeled toward initiatives that truly benefit millions of Filipinos. They are sick of the corruption that has been perpetuated by the current PDAF system. It’s time for the PDAF to go and bring the power back to the people through the People’s Fund,” Aquino adds.

Let’s fix the problem of pork without hurting those who really need it

We have become too fixated on the corruption relating to pork barrel and we have lose sight of the fact that there are people who really need help. There are plenty of them. And many of them have been helped.

Unfortunately, we have this black and white approach of “Let’s abolish pork. Period.” So everybody pays for the sins of the few.

But the only question worth asking is, did the intended beneficiaries get what they were supposed to get?

If the answer is yes, then don’t take their assistance away. If the answer is no, then look at why they did not get it and find a way to ensure that they get it.

The fault lies with the senator or congressman. The legislator requested the allocation, identified the beneficiaries, picked the implementing agency and recommended to it the NGO that will receive the funds.

Puno at dulo ang importante. All that matters is for the beneficiaries to get what they need. In full.

It is not the existence of pork that is wrong, what is wrong is the way that some have used it. The problem is the pigs not the pork barrel. What is there to complain about if assistance goes to those who really need it?

The million people march on the 26th asks (1) for the abolition of pork barrel; (2) for the investigation and prosecution of those involved in the scam.

I agree with the second reason. As to the first, let’s give it more serious thought -for the sake of those who have been helped and continue to be helped by small-scale infra-projects like irrigation systems, safe drinking water, waiting sheds, small bridges so that school children don’t have to balance themselves on makeshift bridges crossing streams on their way to school, rural clinics, etc.; and those who have been helped and continue to be helped by soft pork like medical assistance, vaccination programs, feeding programs, livelihood training programs, farm implements, scholarships, help to bury their dead etc.

It is the micro-level assistance provided by good pork that makes me hesitate adding my voice to the clamor for the outright abolition of all types of pork. Many of those who call for the abolition of pork are a step removed from the lives of the intended beneficiaries of pork. They can take the long macro-view.

Don’t get me wrong. I too beleieve that looking at the big picture is good. However, while we think big and long, let’s also not forget that millions of our people simply have to make it through the day.

Let’s make sure that those who live day to day, hand to mouth, can live long enough to benefit from the long-term all-encompassing solutions that we are cooking up for them.

There is a simple way to make pork work. Hold the legislators accountable. First and last. No fingerpointing to implementing agencies or NGOs. If something goes wrong along the way then it is the legislator’s fault. He has to fix it himself.

Because there is no excuse in the world that will justify why a legislator’s pork goes to other than his intended beneficiaries. The only way pork can be lost is if the legislator steals it or does not keep a watchful eye over it. If he does not have the resources to monitor his projects then he should not embark on them. He will just be throwing away money that can be spent on those who need it. He should just give his pork projects to some other legislator who can make it happen.

The important thing is for pork to get to intended beneficiaries. In full. It does not really matter how it gets to benficiaries as long as it gets to them. Beneficiaries don’t really give a shit how it gets to them as long as they get it, right?

Let’s call for full transparency on the part of the legislators. Every allocation, every project, every distribution, must be reported in detail, progress and completion reports, all readily available to the public as they happen. That way responsibility is clear and accountability can be exacted.

Let’s fix the problem without hurting those who need it most.

Getting the Philippine house in order

Now that all sides of politics have been tarnished with the same PDAF scam brush, it is time to lay the foundation for a new political order.

Another week, another scandal. The controversy that originally involved but a handful of senators and congressmen over the rorting of their Priority Development Assistance Funds, otherwise known as pork barrel, has now engulfed 180 of the 264 members of the house of representatives and twelve of the 23 senators that served in the 14th Congress from 2007-09.

The Commission on Audit’s (COA) findings are that of the Php 8 billion worth of PDAF allotments covered by its report, Php 6.156 billion was released to dubious non-government organisations, and that Php 2.157 billion was cornered by Janet Lim-Napoles’s ten allegedly fake NGOs.

This means that 77 per cent of the audited PDAF allotments in those three years associated with two thirds or 192 of the 287 members of the 14th Congress have been identified as anomalous by the COA. It involves congressmen and senators of all political stripes, including members of the ruling Liberal Party.

This can no longer be considered a set of isolated occurrences involving a small minority. It is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed with systemic and structural reform. The full investigation and resolution of this case could easily take the next three years and beyond. We cannot wait that long to methodically deal with the weaknesses of our political system. The very edifice representing our political order has been infested by termites and is at risk of crumbling to the ground unless serious measures are taken to fix it.

Diagnosing the problem

The first step in renovating our state towards a new political order requires us to diagnose what the source of the problem is. Most people reading about the PDAF scam would probably come to the conclusion that pork barrel is the root cause of the problem without considering why PDAF became necessary in the first place – for the Palace to secure votes for its legislative agenda, particularly the budget.

In defence of the practice some solons claim that it is a way of equitably distributing infrastructure and other forms of development spending across the Philippines, and that abuses can be stopped through reforms in the way the funds are allocated and spent. The Palace has trained its sights on the approval of NGOs as the key to ridding PDAF of anomalies.

The problem with these views is that they do not go to the heart of the issue, which is why solons need to rort the system in the first place. Given the high cost of running an election campaign, the only way for them to recover their campaign expenses and to seek re-election is by accessing public funds.

PDAF is simply a means to an end. Doing away with PDAF will simply mean that other shadier forms of raising money will arise. Other options include narcopolitics, gunrunning and smuggling. To get the Philippine house in order means providing an alternative means of financing political parties so their candidates have a way of preserving their integrity once elected.

Laying a new foundation

We have seen how relying on the ruling elite’s sense of noblesse oblige has turned out. Asking our politicians to refrain from pork barrel much less rorting it is like asking prostitutes to abstain from sexual intercourse to prevent the spread of AIDS. It simply won’t work.

Providing extra checks and balances is like providing contraceptives to sex workers. It helps to a certain extent, as a risk mitigation procedure. Removing the need for that sex worker to enter the flesh trade in the first place would be more effective. Extending the analogy to our legislators that would mean lowering the private costs of electoral contests.

In a previous post, I identified three pillars to support a new political order in the country. They are:

1. State subsidy of political parties

2. Adequate compensation and allowances for elected officials

3. Meritocratic selection of candidates as a condition for public funding of parties

These three pillars would be built on the foundation of greater transparency and accountability. Strengthening the powers and capabilities of the Commission on Audit, Commission on Elections, Ombudsman, National Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Internal Revenue to engage in forensic accounting and electronic surveillance in investigating corrupt activities of public officials is required.

This new foundation would include having a whistleblower protection program and freedom of information act. Any candidate found to have abused his or her allowances would have to be cast out of the system of campaign finance. Political parties would have to expel or dis-endorse them at the next election for that party to have access to public campaign finance.

If we wanted to take things a step further, we could even enact a charter of budget honesty and sustainability. This would require political parties to submit their policies to the Congressional Budget Office, which would cost them prior to elections and release their findings. This is so that parties that promise the sun, moon and stars would be forced to come clean regarding their policies and show how they would pay for them through new taxes or savings.

We have already seen how that a considerable proportion of PDAF spending is being wasted. If we spent that much money on laying the new foundation and three pillars of a new political order, we would have a safer, sound structure on which to renovate our political system.

The time to do this is before the 2016 elections. We need at least two years’ lead time to allow the new foundation to settle and for the pillars to be erected. If we wait too long or get fixated on catching the criminals of yesterday, we will simply allow new criminals to breed in their place. We cannot let this infestation of termites eat us out of house and home.

The Philippines needs a new political order, and the time for it is NOW!

 

On Virgie and Jinggoy

A new video of controversial LTO chief Virginia Torres playing a slot machine in one of the local casinos surfaced a day after an earlier and poorly shot video of her doing the same thing was uploaded on YouTube. The new video made her response to the original video sound like a lie.

“Yes, I remember having dinner with a friend in a hotel. While waiting for the bill to be settled, I saw the slot machine on the lower floor and out of curiosity, I sat in front of one machine and marveled at the lights and read the instructions. I immediately left when the bill was paid. This happened way back.”

How can she get out of the jam she’s in? By revising her initial response with something more plausible, something that if it matches how she looks then so much the better.

“Yes, I remember having dinner with a friend in a hotel. While waiting for the bill to be settled, I discreetly asked the waiter for the location of the nearest ATM machine. You see I decided to pay for our dinner but I had no cash on me. The waiter pointed me to the lower floor. I went down to the lower floor where I was immediately overwhelmed by banks of ATM machines with colorful flashing lights and catchy sound effects. I had never seen ATMs like that before. I had no idea how to operate them so I sat in front of one machine to read the instructions. I pressed the buttons after I thought I understood the instructions. But nothing happened. And that’s why you saw me in that new video standing up and moving to another ATM machine. I was so embarrassed when I learned they were slot machines and not ATMs. This happened way back, when I first arrived in Metro Manila from Tarlac.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada who has been prominently linked to the pork barrel scam refiled a bill he calls the Magna Carta for Journalists.

“Marami rin kayong mga kasamahan at kakilala na talagang hindi naman lehitimong miyembro ng media. Maraming bogus na media personalities. Itong bill na ito I believe would promote the welfare of our friends from the media,” he said by way of explaining why the hell anybody who wants to be a journalist must first pass an exam prepared and administered by a panel whose composition and qualifications will ultimately be determined by Jinggoy, since he is the author of the Magna Carta for Journalists.

“Remember I am a friend of media,” he added, to reassure journalists that he had nothing but their best interest in his heart. Jinggoy is also a friend of Janet Lim Napoles, if I may also add. Let’s go to the pork barrel scam.

I cannot find any plausible explanation why Jinggoy thought washing his hands ala Pontius Pilate is the best way to address the question why hundreds of millions of his pork barrel did not go to intended beneficiaries.

“It is not up to the senators to determine whether an NGO is bogus or not. It is within the functions and the powers of the DA to determine if an NGO is bogus or not. Alangan naman na kami pa ang magsasabi na, “Oy, bogus ‘yan.” How will we know? Even if we endorse a certain NGO, we will have no idea whether it is bogus or not. It is done in good faith. If it endorses a certain project to a particular NGO, iniisip namin na accredited ng Department of Agriculture ‘yon. Ang office ko is not an implementing agency. The implementing agency here is the Department of Agriculture. Hindi naman kami nagpapa-implement. We are just here to determine the projects,” he said.

Every year, in the course of passing the national budget, Congress must review line by line not only the proposed budget but also how well the previous year’s budget was spent.

Senator, budget oversight is a duty, it is not a matter of caprice. You are duty-bound to care for our money as if it were your money and not to spend our money like it was your money.

You cannot claim to be too busy to comb the budget because oversight comes first, before all the other legislative work that you do like refiling a Magna Carta for Journalists bill. Seeing to it that the administration implements existing tax and spending measures or any new ones that you may pass is your number one job. Everything else follows. Think about it.

Sure implementing agencies are responsible for projects identified by legislators but is it too much to expect a legislator to at least scrutinize his own pork barrel, specially during budget deliberations?

Why are legislators so sensitive when asked about their pork barrel? I think the answer is obvious and that’s why I believe calling for the abolition of pork barrel misses the mark.

The problem is not the pork barrel, the problem is the pigs who gorge themselves on it. Get rid of the pigs.

Get rid of the pigs and pork barrel will cease to be a problem. Get rid of the pigs and pork barrel will function as it is supposed to, as a fund that addresses particular local needs that the national government missed.