Business World, 17 June 2014


Pork barrel politics has been thrust into the public consciousness for almost a year now. Filipinos now know how public funds are abused, misused and misappropriated. They are scandalized to know how our national leaders use public funds to “bribe” members of Congress to behave in a certain way. Many are horrified by the seemingly double standard of justice — presumption of guilt for political enemies and presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise for political allies.

How is this pork barrel politics going to end? Is there a fair and enduring solution to it? Yes, but the reality is that for all the hysteria and hoopla concerning the current controversy, the 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. He can change the way government resources are allocated and spent, but always in keeping with the principles of separation of powers as enshrined in the 1987 constitution.

He has two options. He can sit idly by and let this corrupt, convoluted and weak republic that he inherited continue to exist and endure. 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 the second option, his place in Philippine history will be secure.

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

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 system continue.


I will frame the key elements of a bold solution in the form of questions:

First, is it fair? Is President Aquino willing to run after grafters regardless of their political color? Fairness dictates that he should be willing to prosecute all alleged violators — foes, friends or family — with the same dedication and intensity.

Second, is he willing to certify as urgent, and work for their speedy passage, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and the Budget Impoundment Control Act (BICA)? More than four years ago, during the presidential campaign, Mr. Aquino pledged his support for the FOI. There is no reason why he couldn’t and shouldn’t support it now. The FOI is a solid foundation for the openness and accountability in public service that Mr. Aquino advocates.

The passage of the BICA is a test of Mr. Aquino’s personal integrity and policy consistency. The BICA limits the power of the presidency to abuse the congressional power of the purse. As senator, he sponsored BICA to reduce the presidential abuses of the budget during Gloria Arroyo’s term. Then Senator Mar Roxas and then Congressman TJ Guingona had their own version of the BICA. If it was a good measure then when these gentlemen were in the opposition, it must be a good measure still when they are already in power.

Third, is Mr. Aquino willing to put all the multi-billion-peso off-budget funds (the PAGCOR [Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.] social fund, the PCSO [Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office] social fund, and the Malampaya Fund) under the control of the Treasury? By doing so, he would have differentiated himself from all Philippine presidents who preceded him. This move will go a long way in assuring long-term fiscal sustainability by being consistent with the best practices in the world — the one-fund concept.

Fourth, is he willing to discontinue the use of non-government organizations (NGOs) as implementing arms of government programs and projects? If so, this should be reflected in future budgets. The glow of giving is lost when NGOs use public funds to finance their own activities.

The practice of giving NGOs access to public funds started in 2002. It bloomed during Mrs. Arroyo’s term with the help of people who now sit in Aquino’s Cabinet. Before, NGOs played the role of observers in the public bidding of projects and acted as monitors of existing government programs, but not as implementing agencies.

Because of Mr. Aquino and Budget Secretary Butch Abad’s close link to the NGO community, this practice continues to thrive under the present administration. The move to bar NGOs access to public funds might hurt their friends, but real reform often requires inflicting pain on friends and families.

By doing all these, President Aquino would willingly weaken the awesome presidential powers that he enjoys right now. But, in exchange, he will effectively tie the hands of his successors. The payoff is very high as it would strengthen political institutions and would limit presidential abuses in the use of public funds.

Such a bold move will require sacrifices on the part of President Aquino. Such a historic act would not be new. His mother, the late President Cory Aquino, gave up her “dictatorial” powers under the Freedom Constitution (some say prematurely) in order to hasten the restoration of democracy in the Philippines.

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