Bonb Bonb Marcos

Pork to the parties, not the polies!

Why giving money to political parties not politicians is a better idea than scrapping their pork.

It’s been in the headlines for over a week, after the Inquirer broke the story of a scam allegedly involving 23 congressmen and 5 senators and Php10 billion of Philippine Development Assistance funds (aka pork barrel) being siphoned off over more than ten years by a syndicate known as JLN which stands for the initials of the lady accused of heading it.

A member of the syndicate, a close relative, blew the whistle on the boss after a row between them turned ugly. It blew the lid off the issue whether we as a nation still want to maintain the practice of pork barrelling in Congress. If these allegations are proven, it would simply confirm what a lot of Filipinos intuitively know, and that is that these funds or a significant proportion of them, which are meant to benefit local constituents of politicians simply go into their re-election kitty.

Some efforts through the years have been made to make it harder for or limit the amount of corruption or kickbacks from contractors to solons in exchange for awarding projects to them from taking place. The alleged conspirators have been able to defraud Filipino taxpayers by setting up ghost projects involving dummy recipient NGOs issuing fake receipts to help fulfil audit requirements and make everything seem above board with the imprimatur of the legislator who endorses the so-called “development” project.

The Palace, which understandably is concerned, given its reputation for clean and honest government has ordered a full and exhaustive probe through the Department of Justice spearheaded by the National Bureau of Investigation. This would inform and provide evidence to the Ombudsman which has started looking into it. The person accused by the whistle blower appears ready to front the enquiry.

As this developed, public support for abolishing PDAF has mounted. Senator Franklin Drilon, the man expected to assume leadership of the upper house has appeared to welcome the idea. The question will be whether the budget to be approved by Congress will still contain these allotments to its members or not, and whether Malacañang would be able to control the legislative agenda without them.

The opposition for its part considers the investigation a political ploy designed to bash it in the lead up to the 2016 elections.  Three of the five senators linked to the scam, Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Bong Marcos and Bong Revilla seem set to run for higher office. Prior to the 2013 midterm elections, a number of senators from the opposition bloc were engulfed in a similar scandal. The results of the elections seem to indicate that the issue swayed voters not to vote for their kin who were running to join them.

To be fair, the issue is not just about Congress and pork. It involves funds from the Malampaya project which along with the proceeds of the PCSO and PAGCOR Prof Benjamin Diokno describes as “shadowy funds” that are not subject to the usual process of budget scrutiny and deliberations by Congress. For as long as they are hidden, Diokno believes they will always be prone to corruption and a source of patronage and rent-seeking.

Here is how Prof Winnie Monsod weighs the pros and the cons behind the issue of pork:

In sum, what are the benefits of the pork barrel system in the Philippines? One, it gives the executive branch tremendous leverage over the legislature, which is supposed to provide checks and balances (the executive branch can withhold the pork). Two, it gives incumbent legislators an unfair advantage over their electoral opponents, because of the projects (if successfully implemented) they bring, or the money (if pocketed) they can use to buy votes. And what are the costs? At least P21 billion a year of taxpayers’ money that arguably could have been more efficiently and equitably used for the welfare of the Filipino people.

The problem with the abolishing pork is that you need the endorsement of the very people who benefit from it to succeed. This is exactly the same impediment to getting Congress to abolish political dynasties. Pork may be seen as the vehicle for the network of patronage emanating from the Palace to Congress to the people. In the past it has been indispensable in getting significant bills involving painful economic reform to pass. Some say even the impeachment of the Chief Justice would not have taken place without it.

Pork is then used to help solons get re-elected either through the projects they fund or through amassing some form of rents that then get used for their campaign. What’s more, this tacit arrangement seems to exist with the grudging consent of the public who don’t believe that public servants can afford to live on their salaries and run for office based on them alone. There is therefore a trade-off or deal with the devil being made here. Economic reforms are not costless to produce–they require some form of corruption in a developing economy.

The problem with that is it perpetuates a system of patrimonialism which many say lies at the heart of our problem of underdevelopment, i.e. we would not have to resort to this form of “transactions costs” if we had a strong party system in which policies mattered, where elected members toed the line or faced the consequences from their own caucus.

The problem with our system is that political dynasties control the parties, or stated in another way, parties are merely a front for the family franchise, and they are financed largely through a system of patronage that emanates from the presidency, who requires their support to push his agenda through. It is a co-dependent arrangement of patronage and rent-seeking that perpetuates itself.

How then do we untangle this web? Do we simply abolish pork? That presents a number of challenges as well. How will Malacañang push its legislative agenda? What forms of illegal activities would congressmen resort to to raise campaign funds?  But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. How would we get congressmen and senators to act against their own self-interest in the first place?

The answer lies in campaign finance reform: by using the PDAF to finance political parties. The amount involved, Php21 billion a year or Php63 billion per term, is a lot of money. With that kind of money parties could become professionally run organisations that would endorse candidates and provide seed money for their campaign. This system would still favour incumbents who presumably would still be high ranking members of their parties. It would still be subject to the audit and accountability rules of the Comelec and the Commission on Audit, since they are public funds.

The good thing about giving money to the political parties not the elected politician to disburse is that it gives their executive committees greater power to influence and discipline their members who will be relying on their endorsement to seek re-election. It will still be rife with influence peddling, factionalism and perhaps patronage, but that is the nature of politics. Some parties will do a better job of managing their affairs and that will be their selling point to the electorate.

The downside of this proposal is that rather than the money or at least a good proportion of it going to fund development projects that benefit constituents, all of it would now go to the political parties. Of course the way in which parties use these funds would be up to them. They could presumably still engage in development projects, but that would be a matter for them to decide. They may decide to keep all of it to manage their affairs and fund election campaigns of their members.

My answer to that objection would be to say that although shifting pork to parties does come with a cost to the constituent community, it does bring some benefits as well in the form of better policies and programs, with less padding for corruption, as parties are strengthened and get weaned off the system of patronage and rent-seeking. This would not happen if we simply abolished pork. These benefits would accrue to society and presumably outweigh the costs.

Some might say this is too risky. Even if we give money to parties, they will still be run by politicians, and every time you hand money to a politician you are courting disaster. Well, perhaps it does involve some risk, but it is a risk we should be prepared to take if we are to develop a different set of political institutions in our country, one that provides incentives to stronger parties, rather than the current arrangement which degrades them.

The next step after that would be to allow equal access to non-dynastic members of the party through legislation that would allow campaign funds to be disbursed by the state to political parties subject to their meeting certain requirements that allow greater access and participation to party members that do not belong to any established political family. That will be the subject of a subsequent post.