Budget Impoundment Control Act

If people want pork, should we let them have it?

The jury is literally still out, but the poll results are in, and they look ominous for those who want to abolish pork.

As the Supreme Court deliberates on the legalities surrounding the Priority Development Assistance Fund, a people’s initiative was being organised to propose the scrapping of pork outright. The protest movement swiftly adopted the idea posed by an ex-Supreme Court Chief Justice, and began calling for volunteers to collect the required number of signatures to put their proposal to a referendum.

Meanwhile Pulse Asia released the results of a nationwide poll conducted from September 24-27. Apparently, despite 90 per cent of respondents saying they were aware of PDAF (up from 66 per cent a decade ago) with news of wholesale plunder of such funds allegedly funnelled to ghost NGOs percolating in the media, a clear majority or 55 per cent still want to retain pork as it is, or with stricter guidelines or in a diminished form. Only 45 per cent wanted to do away with the practice altogether.

This is unwelcome news for the Scrap Pork Network behind the Million People March. It means that they have their job cut out for them. Not only will they have to collect millions of signatures from a minimum of 10 per cent of registered voters nationwide and at least 3 per cent from each electoral district, in accordance with the law on people’s initiatives, they will now have to convince a large chunk of voters to change their mind and support their proposition. If the wretched conduct of congress over the PDAF scam has not convinced them to support the scrapping of pork, it is hard to imagine what will.

It is clear that in a country with a culture of patronage, people want their pork. The question now is whether we should let them have it.

From a strictly moral sense, some idealists might argue along the lines (to quote the scriptures) “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Applying this to the situation, if pork causes our politicians to steal, shouldn’t we cut it off from them? That’s the basic rationale of abolitionists.

It is clear that a majority of Filipinos don’t see things this way. For them, there might be competing moral standards at play. To use a passage from Joel Migdal’s book State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another:

What may be easily labeled as corruption or criminality, such as nepotism or smuggling, can also be looked at, for instance, as a morality favoring kinship ties over meritocracy or one expressing the right of movement of people and goods across the boundaries arbitrarily imposed by state law.

Given the deep-seated attitudes of Filipinos favoring the pork barrel system, and their penchant to rely on personal ties based on kinship to get the resources that they need and want at the local level, legislating new moral codes won’t necessarily lead to behaviour change.

What is needed is a more systemic way of dealing with the structural bottlenecks in government that allow politicians to use pork barrel as a way to address unmet needs in the community, at large, and profit from it along the way, both politically and economically. To use an analogy from the drug enforcement field, the only way to lower the people’s addiction to pork, would be to address both supply and demand channels. What are these channels and how do we address them?

Allow me to propose six ways to deal with the demand and supply of pork. These are outlined below:

Reducing the supply of pork

When talking about the supply of pork, I am talking about where pork comes from, or how it gets doled out. I am talking about the budget process, and how both congressional and presidential pork get inserted into the general appropriations or retro-fitted into national expenditure accounts. So the question here is, how do we reduce the supply of pork at its sources? The following measures should therefore be considered:

  1. Pass a Budget Impoundment Control Act (BICA). To prevent the president from impounding budget savings and using them for unauthorised expenditures.
  2. Invest all GOCC profits, including the proceeds of PCSO and PAGCOR into a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). To be governed by a board of directors and staffed with professional managers. The principal of the fund is to remain untouched, and only returns from investing it in safe, risk free assets are to be used for development purposes. This is to prevent profits from being used for political purposes. Incidentally, this is how the Malampaya Fund should operate as well.
  3. Pass Freedom of Information (FOI) and Whistleblower Protection (WBP) legislation. This would allow the sunshine principle to come into play that would increase the likelihood of scams to be caught and reduce the risk of pork abuse by legislators and the president.

Reducing the demand for pork

It is not sufficient to reduce the supply of pork, we also need to address the needs of the people in a more systemic way, to lessen their dependence on pork. As a start to this exercise, we need to ask, what were the most common uses and abuses of pork in the past? We have seen that the most abused element of pork has been the ‘soft’ projects, consisting of services such as livelihood training, medical kits and agricultural aid, as opposed to the ‘hard’ projects which are attended to by the government’s public works department. The following are some remedies to the demand for “soft” pork:

  1. Use the earnings from the Sovereign Wealth Fund (no. 2 above) to:
    • provide scholarships and income contingent loans to tertiary students and out of school youths. This would eliminate the need for congressmen and senators to fund scholarships through pork
    • invest in the Philippine Health Insurance Fund. This would support universal healthcare for indigent patients.
    • invest in social welfare projects. To expand the coverage of the conditional cash transfers and other community based projects.
    • invest in agriculture and agrarian reform projects. To fund the CARPeR and modernisation of our agricultural sector.
  2. Adopt recommendations by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies endorsed by the Leagues of Provincial Governors and Mayors to reform the Local Government Code to allow LGUs to raise revenues on their own by about an estimated third of their existing funds reducing their dependence on internal revenue allotments from the national government and on congress for aid. This will allow local governments to have fiscal capacity to address local needs.
  3. Provide state funds to political parties. To lower the demand for pork from politicians who need it to get re-elected.

If we could pass these measures, their combined effect would be to channel more resources to systemic and programmatic approaches to tackle poverty and underdevelopment and have less resources available for patronage based approaches. This is not to say that pork will be legislated out of existence, but what it will do is lower the incentives in the system that drive it. There will be less avenues for patronage and better safeguards to limit the abuse of privilege.

I know this is not the policy solution that abolitionists want. They would rather have what seems to be a more direct route to their goal. The problem is that by seeking to legislate against certain behaviour, without addressing the incentive matrix that fosters it, they are really conjuring up a whole heap of unintended consequences. Illicit drugs do not disappear simply because we have made them illegal, or because we catch a few drug dealers and send them to prison.

Rather than expending all that effort in finding a silver bullet through a people’s initiative, the reform movement should actually be putting its weight behind a reform agenda that would wean both patrons and clients off of pork, so that they may find healthier ways of conducting their business. The answer to the question, should we let the people have pork, if that is what they want, ultimately lies in changing the tastes and habits of both the public and those in power, through shoves and nudges rather than mandating them to change their “wayward ways”.