Business World, 20 August 2013


That’s how one might characterize the position of President Benigno Aquino III on the people’s growing discontent with the multi-billion presidential and congressional pork. He may choose to ignore the strong, gathering force for the pork barrel’s abolition at his own peril. The President should support an unpopular move if he’s convinced that he’s on the right side of history; that’s strong leadership. But knowingly defending a broken, corrupt, and wasteful pork barrel system is, to put it mildly, mindless.

But is there a serious, doable solution to the pork barrel mess? And is the yet popular and honest President up to the challenge? The reality is that for all the hysteria and hoopla concerning the current “pork barrel” controversy, its bold solution stops at the presidential desk.


The morally repulsive pork barrel system gives President Aquino a golden opportunity to change the course of Philippine history — by improving the way government resources are allocated and spent and in keeping with the “nice” principles of separation of powers and fiscal responsibility that are enshrined in the 1987 constitution.

He has two options. He can sit idly by and let this corrupt, convoluted, and weak republic muddle through. Or he can make a bold move and leave behind a legacy of strong political institutions that would help strengthen Philippine democracy in the years ahead.

If he chooses option two, his place in Philippine history will be secure. True, it carries political risks, but they are lower than the social benefits. In addition, the second option requires that he should be forward looking, persevering, and willing to use up his still huge political capital.

Mr. Aquino could have embraced option two much earlier in the year as the pork barrel controversy was brewing. After all, he was sent an advanced copy of the now famous Commission on Audit report on pork barrel from 2007 to 2009.

He could have sent to Congress a budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 without the “pork” (the Presidential Assistance Development Fund worth P25.2 billion — P8.8 billion for senators and party-list representatives, and P16.4 billion for district representatives).

With zero appropriation for PDAF, Congress cannot, on its own, create one, and therefore that’s the end of it. And even if such a fund is inserted, the President, assuming he has the political guts and the interest of the general public in mind, could simply “line-item” veto the congressional insertion. End of the story.

Of course, the bold solution to the pork barrel mess in particular, and the “corrupt” political system in general is much more complicated than the above. It requires total cleansing. Adjustments at the margin won’t work.

Here are some inconvenient truths. First, Philippine elections are excessively expensive. It takes tons of money to get elected to key positions in government. It is estimated that it takes more than 2 to 3 billion pesos to have a realistic chance of getting elected President. For a senator, it could take several hundred millions, and for a congressman, tens of millions to a hundred million pesos. Hence, with few exceptions, one does not get elected without spending many times more than what one expects to be compensated for.

Second, there is no real party system in the Philippines. As a result, political candidates have to raise their own campaign funds. Unless one is independently wealthy, a candidate for public office will be indebted to his political financiers, who expect to be paid, one way or another, once the candidate gets elected. The payback could be in the form of tax concessions, appointment in lucrative posts in government, and through the congressional “pork.”

In sum, election spending has to be recouped — by hook or by crook. That’s how the President controls the House leadership. It’s an open secret that one can’t be elected Speaker without the backing of the President. The Senate Presidency is a little bit more complicated, but most Senators are under the political influence of the President too, through the “pork barrel” system and other forms of political patronage.

Meanwhile, the convoluted and corrupt political structure lives on. Political institutions remain weak. Both the President and the legislators continue to enjoy their respective “pork.” In the meantime, the President sees no compelling reason to rock the “politically stable” boat.

If political institutions were strong, real political parties would exist and they would be held accountable for their performance during their watch.

Under the present weak system, political parties of past presidents wither as presidents leave office, hence, there is no accountability. The Filipino people cannot punish bad performance or reward a good one. Political parties fade away as soon as Presidents exit. President Ramos’ Lakas-NUCD is now just a shadow of its old past. Mrs. Arroyo’s KAMPI Party faded as she exited in disrepute.

On the other hand, if political institutions were strong and functioning, the assignment of powers under the Constitution will hold. The President proposes the budget, Congress authorizes it, and then the Executive Branch (headed by the President) implements it. The budget is implemented according to the wishes of the holder of the power of the purse — Congress.

Under the present weak political institutions, the President submits the budget, Congress approves it with little scrutiny, aided by the promise of lots of pork, and then the President implements the budget any way he wants it. He can slice and dice the budget, cherry pick what to release or not to release, and then release funds to agencies and local government units for programs not even approved by Congress.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A President who is committed to good governance, fiscal transparency and public accountability should not let this rotten, corrupt, and opaque system to continue.


Here are the key elements of a bold solution to the current political mess. First, abolish the PDAF. The Filipino people are mad and they are getting madder every day. PDAF’s continued existence in the face of mounting evidence of corruption, misuse, and abuse of public funds is proof that Mr. Aquino’s Daang Matuwid rhetoric is farcical. Banish PDAF and his political credibility will soar to new heights.

Second, pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill now. Mr. Aquino supported it during the presidential campaign. That was three years ago. There is no reason why he should not support it now. The FOI bill is a solid foundation for the openness and accountability in public service that he advocates.

Third, put all the multi-billion off-budget funds (the PAGCOR social fund, the PCSO social fund, and the Malampaya Fund) under the control of the Treasury. By doing this, he would have differentiated himself from all Philippine presidents who recently preceded him. This move is consistent with the best practices in the world — the one-fund concept. Moreover, it will go a long way in assuring long-term fiscal sustainability.

Fourth, pass the Budget Impoundment Act. Admittedly, this measure will reduce the power of the Presidency. But he should see it as a forward-looking move. Future presidents may not be as incorruptible and un-power-hungry as he is. It will make honest the budget preparation and congressional budget review process. But at the same time, it will make the President more serious about the use of his formidable line-item veto power. Mr. Aquino supported this bill when he was Senator. And so did Senator Teofisto Guingona III, a close political ally, when he was congressman.

In effect, by doing all of the above, President Aquino would willingly weaker the awesome presidential powers right now. But, in exchange, it will effectively tie the hands of his future successors to do the right things. The payoff is very high as it would strengthen political institutions and would limit abuses in the use of public funds.

Such bold moves will require sacrifices on the part of President Aquino. But such historic acts are not new. His mother, the late President Cory Aquino, gave up her “dictatorial” powers under the Freedom Constitution (some say prematurely), which powers she used well for the common good, in order to hasten the restoration of democracy in the Philippines.

Is the son capable of following his mother’s noble deed?