budget rules

Pork is the new GMA

The organizers of the Million People March know what they are doing.

They know that for their protest movement to attract the broadest base of support and have the greatest impact, it would have to limit its concerns to as few as possible. This basic insight into the inner workings of interest groups was first highlighted in the Logic of Collective Action, a book by Mancur Olson. Although his findings from the 1960s have recently been weakened by more recent studies, the core of the thesis still holds.

Why do groups like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and the Tea Party movement in the US wield so much power and influence over governments in driving policy debates? It is all due to the specific nature of the issues they have in mind. For the NRA it is the freedom to own guns, for the tea party it is to lower government debt and deficit. The greater the level of specificity, the greater the potency.

Having too long a laundry list of demands and positions would simply cause their adherents to splinter and their message to get diluted or hijacked. This is perhaps what happened to the Occupy movement. While it raged on for a while, the inchoate nature of the protest action and the wide disparity of calls among its adherents eventually caused its energy to dissipate.

That is clearly something that the MPM wants to avoid.For this reason their emphasis on unity and limiting the number of demands to just three–to abolish pork, account for pork, and prosecute pork abusers–is important. That’s it. Just scrap pork. Anything else beyond that is a distraction, as far as they are concerned.

It is not that they don’t see other policy prescriptions as valid. Their statement acknowledges the need for a broader conversation later down the track to determine what would replace pork, but for the time being, people’s attention and energy have to be focused on the single task at hand, which is to rid the national government’s budget of different forms of lump sum, discretionary spending, which is how they have defined pork.

But even with the three points that they have outlined, there apparently was still room for confusion. Shortly after releasing their unity statement, the MPM organisers had to issue a clarification that they were not supporting calls for the president to resign or be impeached over the release of the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program), a stimulus package initiated in late-2011, which the Palace had put together from its underspent budgetary allotments earlier in the year.

Because legal and fiscal luminaries had claimed that the DAP had violated provisions of the constitution over how savings could be re-aligned and spent, and because some of it had been channeled to legislators as Priority Development Assistance Funds (aka pork), many had construed the MPM’s earlier remarks as potentially supporting calls for impeaching the president. To prevent its message from being hijacked, the Scrap Pork network had to make it clear that they were not going to use their rally in Makati as a staging ground for ousting Mr Aquino.

The president for his part has tried to lay the blame back on Mrs Arroyo claiming she had raided the Malampaya Fund to the tune of close to one trillion pesos and had directed some of that amount to Ms Janet Napoles, who is now facing charges of plunder for her role in the whole conspiracy. This staggering amount that was allegedly misappropriated, only serves to remind protesters of the potential for fraud and plunder in the future.

This is why the MPM and Scrap Pork Network cannot fathom why the Palace insists on the appropriateness of the DAP and of maintaining budget rules around off-budget funds like that of Malampaya. While the president keeps acting like it is 2005 when the anti-Gloria movement raged, he has to recognise the fact that pork is the new GMA, and that people have moved on and are tired of him blaming her all the time.

If he does not do so, then he risks alienating protesters and losing legitimacy and public trust in his administration. He will be increasingly seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. At the moment, the MPM and Scrap Pork network haven’t turned on him, but they could easily do so, especially if new revelations emerge of other questionable dealings. Already, his aunt, Tingting Cojuangco has alleged poll fraud in 2013 that involved military and palace officials with his tacit approval.

Though President Aquino may be trying to draw lines of distinction between him and his predecessor, such allegations are slowly blurring those lines. Though they may later be proven to be unfounded, allegations of fraud have a way of unsettling voters and investors. Just as the country has gained the trifecta of investment status upgrades from the three major credit rating agencies, and when the need to drive deeper reforms is becoming urgent in the final years of his presidency, Malacañang cannot afford to have such destabilising forces at play.

Clef two-factor authentication