Skewering the Pork Barrel

The system known as pork barrel was first introduced to Filipinos nearly a century ago by the American colonial “tutelage” in the ways of democratic representation. Needless to say, in all this time that pork has been on the table for our legislators, the pendulum has simply swung from one way of treating it to another: from it being proposed individually and inserted in line agency budgets to it being listed as a separate item with fixed allocated amounts per house and per member.

With the present move to abolish Priority Development Assistance Fund by President Aquino and his allies in Congress, pork has merely caused the pendulum to swing back to where it was originally. The institution of pork remains, it is just the institutional arrangements to skewer it that have changed. The same arguments favouring the preservation of the pork barrel that have been there since the 1920’s have also been put forward by the present regime. In light of this one could say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

If I were to assess the chances of us abolishing pork permanently, I would place the odds of that happening at a million to one, perhaps a billion. Even after the #MillionPeopleMarch and the congressional hearings over the misuse of pork in both houses, it does not seem likely that we can do away with this institution for very long. A momentary cessation to placate the public’s revulsion and to allow patron-client networks to reconfigure is possible, but eventually the practice of pork barrelling will re-emerge in some shape or form.

When you scan democratic countries around the world, you will find that the system of allowing local concerns to trump national interests emerges everywhere. In Australia, you will find inordinate amounts of public money being spent in marginal seats in the lower house which could swing the outcome of an election one way or another. In the US, congressional earmarks will be incorporated in specific pieces of legislation to win support from legislators whose votes are needed to get it to pass.

Even in relatively corruption-free Norway, the disproportionate number of regional country seats allows them to get a larger proportion of public investment even though they account for a much smaller share of the population. But on the flip side, the existence of pork or patronage in these countries, does not lead to a total breakdown of accountability and honesty that we see in the Philippine setting.

It is in this context that many are now asking what is the proper way forward for the administration given the rubric of daang matuwid (righteous path) that it has constructed for itself. Many are wondering whether in its haste to prosecute Mrs Arroyo for corruption, it used pork to gain support in Congress and whether it allowed some of the worst forms of abuse to persist under its watch.

If this is the most honest administration that the Philippines can produce in a generation, imagine what will happen when it steps down from office in 2016?

Many see the abandonment of pork as a litmus test which this administration needs to pass. The question is for how long it can afford to do this. By 2016, the Liberal Party will be facing an uphill battle to prevent the seeming juggernaut of Vice President Jejomar Binay from claiming the presidency.

Given Mr Binay’s expansive control of the central business district of Makati including the Fort Global City that formerly was under Taguig, his ability to raise a rich war chest for his candidacy with which to rain down patronage on supporters from the masses is formidable.

For the LP to remain competitive in that race, it will have to match the campaign spend that Mr Binay is sure to unleash. The only way it can do that without reinstating pork or plundering the national coffers would be to enact some form of campaign finance reform that would allow state funding of political parties based on their share of votes cast at the last election.

Given the advantage of incumbency, the LP will be in a better position given the turncoats that have sided with it since the 2010 presidential elections which it won. The 2013 elections could well be the high water mark of its membership at the local level if it gets thrown out of the Palace in 2016.

Although I have couched this policy proposal in terms of the politics of 2016 and the interests of the incumbents, I believe that such a reform will provide a more permanent solution to the abuse of pork than existing proposals out there. Introducing bottom-up budgeting using central authority and central funds goes against the very principle of BUB.

Having a Freedom of Information law will help enhance accountability, but is very much reliant on a post-audit and ad hoc investigative process than a systemic one. The longevity of pork abolition can be called into question simply because it is based on the voluntary restraint exercised by politicians.

In the long-run, what will allow legislators to refrain from the abuse of pork is if they have the support of strong political parties that are able to deliver platforms and programs of government rather than promises, and are able to finance their local campaigns with money sourced in a transparent manner from taxpayers. If by abusing their privileges, they would risk losing such support, then a powerful incentive would be in place to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The threat of prosecution might not be enough to deter politicians from engaging in the worst forms of corruption. If caught, they would simply use their power, influence and money to avoid a jail sentence.

In the short run, it will pay for the administration and its allies in congress to propose the abolition of pork. In the medium to long run however, they will have to phase in reforms that address the root cause of the problem. Pork in and of itself is not it.

It is just a manifestation of a much deeper problem–the costliness of elections and the absence of strong political parties, which reduces our politics into a semi-feudal state comprised of political dynasties which do not distinguish personal from public resources, and as such engage in plunder to dole out patronage during elections to perpetuate themselves in power.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • manuelbuencamino

    “When you scan democratic countries around the world, you will find that the system of allowing local concerns to trump national interests emerges everywhere.”

    Because, as the tired old saying goes, all politics is local, in all systems based on popular elections.

    “But on the flip side, the existence of pork or patronage in these countries, does not lead to a total breakdown of accountability and honesty that we see in the Philippine setting.”

    Recent events show that we are moving in the direction of accountability. And it also possible that many of those other democratic countries conveniently sweep their pork scandals under the rug.

    Honesty, well, that’s an entirely different problem the solution of which lies not in a moral rearmament campaign but in making it more difficult to become dishonest.