September 2013

Every pork you take

You belong to that crowd who went to Luneta for the MillionPeopleMarch: your face red with rage, you cried “Scrap the pork!” You went home sobered up by the experience, but wanted to do more and make pork-busting a sideline career – what do you do?

I don’t have a complete list of “Do’s”, but I have in mind a few hints that I thought might help.

You know it all started as a PDAFscam, with corruption as the issue; focus shifted to pork, then broadened to cover the so-called presidential, P-Noy pork. Pork barrel is a 25 -billion peso item in the budget under the label Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF. In theory, senators and congressmen may identify projects of their choice and charge its costs against the Fund following a prescribed set of rules and guidelines. If pork barrel is generic, PDAF is the brand.

The issue morphed from PDAF to pork because some people found the brand bad and saw it fit to condemn the whole generic lot. Anyway, President Benigno C. Aquino III has dropped the label and issued a new set of rules and guidelines. Protesters want more: they want the whole pork caboodle out, no less.

P-Noy pork is native, home-cured pork. In its original sense in the US, the “pork barrel is a popular metaphor for projects and favors for legislators’ districts.” When its sense broadens to include projects for senators, the label changes to “earmarks”. Back here we lump them under the single pork label, but still in reference to Congress.

Some experts thought: pork is virtually a discretionary fund; the Executive has sole discretions over some hefty lump sum funds; ergo, these funds must be pork, too. The simplistic logic tends to mislead.

The budget is a forecast, and forecasts do fail, giving way instead for the unpredictable to happen (calamities, crises, wars, human errors, etc.) You allow for them through lump sum items. Hence, lump sums per se are not bad, even if they are discretionary.

Instead of using simplistic logic, protesters need to specify which item is “pork” and why.

If you know your issues, you would know what you want to happen or see in place, and why. This is your stand on the issue and it depends on where you sit.

On pork, you have at least two choices: scrap or reform.

The “scrap” call means removing the 25 billion peso pork item and the P-Noy pork items from the budget and distributing the funds to other line items, preferably under certain national agency budgets. It stems, implicitly, from an awesome amount of mistrust – of senators and congressmen, of P-Noy. It reserves its trust for national agency officials who were appointed by those it happens to mistrust.

Whether by design or by happenstance, this call has the effect of putting PNoy in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, and driving a wedge between the Executive and the Congress.

Pork is the Executive’s unofficial leverage in the legislature. You use it to push for your agenda through a body whose members are otherwise focused on pursuing their individual agenda. You use pork to build coalitions that will steadily stand behind your policies. You take away all pork and you leave the Executive in a paralyzing standoff with Congress, or worse, as Senate President Franklin Drilon warned, “you place him at its mercy.”

Against the backdrop of an agitated mass demanding quick good performance, scrapping the pork amounts to an act of political self-roasting. So, if P-Noy is your political enemy, “Scrap all pork!” may make the most sense to you.

Here I find the political group Bayan as a good example. But the reverse is not true: you may be an ally to P-Noy and still shout “Scrap!” – which makes the least sense to me. In a game where reciprocity is the norm, this move amounts to a defection. I have in mind the Akbayan Partylist. “Scrap!” in fact is the most widely taken stand among the active non-organized crowd, stemming less from analysis than sheer anger alone.

Reform measures tend to find less adherents during times of ferment than radical calls. It must be why pork reform is the least popular stand. It means the pork item in the budget will stay (let alone P-Noy’s). But since it takes corruption as the core issue, it demands the putting into place of policy, participatory, procedural and like other reform measures.

There has been a burgeoning list of items for reform that are real, triggered precisely by the PDAF scam. Those in the know have started exploring alternatives to PDAF, with promising yields. Information exchange via social media helps in shaping and drawing out the wisdom of crowds.

What comes into clearer focus in the light of all this is crowd access to government information: a strong push for the approval of the Freedom of Information bill is in order. We hope to sing these lines with Sting someday:
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every pork you take
We’ll be watching you

Galang is a governance and development specialist, and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (