A million or so Filipinos marched Monday, August 26, to Rizal Park, formerly known as Luneta, to collectively show their outrage against the system of pork barrel that has been at the front and centre of Philippine politics for quite sometime. Janet Napoles, the pork-barrel queen, made sure this issue won’t die down as she continues to elude authorities. The euphoria of last Monday’s protest is over now and we’re back to base one, with reality staring down hard at us.
Even before the march, President Noynoy Aquino has already pronounced he would abolish the Priority Assistance Development Fund or PDAF, the congressional pork barrel. Although at first Aquino was for retaining PDAF because he believes that it has some benefits to local governments and other civil organizations like cause-oriented NGOs, he had to backtrack after realizing the huge swell of opposition on the eve of the people’s march. The truth, however, is he could not unilaterally make this decision on his own without involving Congress.
|Protesters during the August 26th one million people pork barrel march at Rizal |
Park demanding the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF),
Congress' pork barrel and the president's pork barrel. Photo courtesy of Demotix.
Malacañang lauded the people who marched last Monday calling them Noynoy Aquino's new allies in his campaign against corruption. Naturally, people were mad because President Aquino stood his ground in preserving the much bigger presidential pork barrel, the discretionary funds he can use anytime at his will without congressional approval, especially the billions of dollars paid as royalties to the Philippine government from the Malampaya gas project.
With PDAF’s abolition uncertain and the president’s pork barrel safe in place, perhaps what the people need to do next time is to assemble another protest, but bigger and more boisterous, not in Luneta but in front of Malacañang.
Assuming another protest march would make the President eventually buckle down to pressure, both congressional and presidential pork barrels even if they are abolished will not solve the problem of corruption. The sum total of all stolen possessions by politicians, their families and cronies, past and present, is still much larger, enough to make the whole nation shudder. We need a bigger intervention, one that is not only going to wipe out pork barrels, whether presidential or congressional.
French political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as Montesquieu, wrote about the corruption of principles and the decline of the state in De l’Espirit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws):
“The corruption of each government begins almost always with the corruption of its principles…
“Once the principles of a government have been corrupted, even the best laws become bad and will turn against the State, whereas when principles remain healthy, bad laws may have the effect of good ones because the force of principle carries everything with it.
“Few laws are not good when the State has not lost its principles, and, as Epicurus relates in speaking of wealth: ‘It is not the liquor which has become corrupted, but the vessel that holds it.’”
This observation doesn’t apply only to the Philippines but also to its model of governance, the United States, a far more advanced political system. In a 2005 Harper’s Magazine article, “The Great American Pork Barrel,” Ken Silverstein outlined how a simple piece of legislation like the Foreign Operations bill could undergo a startling metastasis.
Calling it the biggest single piece of pork barrel legislation in American history, Silverstein noted that the aforementioned bill started with a mere nine earmarks (Americans call their pork barrel as earmarks) but ended with 11,772 separate earmarks scattered throughout the bill.
Silverstein wrote: “There was$100,000 for goat-meat research in Texas, $549,000 for “Future Foods” development in Illinois, $569,000 for “Cool Season Legume Research” in Idaho and Washington, $63,000 for a program to combat noxious weeds in the desert Southwest, $175,000 for obesity research in Texas. In the end, the bill’s earmarks were worth a combined total of nearly $16 billion—a figure almost as large as the annual budget of the Department of Agriculture and roughly twice that of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Napoles’s P10-billion pork barrel scam simply pales in comparison. Nor the presidential pork barrel which was reported to be largely allotted for calamity funds. The pork barrel system in both the US and Philippine settings obviously protects incumbents of Congress and the President. There is very little incentive to reform the system. As what has happened in the Philippines, the most President Aquino, for instance, can do is to mouth his slogan of “matuwid na daan” which is nothing but an empty shibboleth.
Keith Ashdown, who served as research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a nationally recognized expert in tracking political paybacks and corruption, calls the American pork barrel or system of earmarks as one of the most fundamental rights of members of Congress, whether one is Republican or Democrat. “Getting between a lawmaker and an earmark is like trying to take a rib eye away from a dog,” says Ashdown.
Since 1822 when US President James Monroe limited financial support from Washington “to great national works only,” the pork barrel has become central to America’s national political culture. It has long been a foregone conclusion that whenever the federal government builds a road, or erects a dam, or constructs a power plant, members of Congress will artfully pad the bill with hometown “pork.” In fact, this is the same political culture that the Americans transplanted in the Philippines during their colonial administration of the islands.
Filipino politicians are astute learners of the American political system. With the hue and cry about pork barrel, President Aquino is now suggesting reforms that would in effect only streamline the means of corruption. Eliminating the PDAF and introducing a more palatable program with virtually the same purpose will not solve the problem.
The trust of the Filipino people in their leaders is now at a record low. In fact, it has been in the dumps since the two decades of martial law regime under Ferdinand Marcos. Despite a resurrection of trust in the early stages of the Cory Aquino administration, we have never fully recovered, especially after the years of plunder under Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
|Filipino seafarers join protest vs. pork barrel system and corruption. Photo by|
Edgardo Tuangtuang, courtesy of Migrante International.
President Noynoy Aquino, with his awkward and lacklustre leadership and policies, has failed to restore trust in government. All the president’s men—Lacierda, Ochoa, Abad, and others—can do is to keep on refurbishing Aquino’s image as trustworthy even if he is a weak leader.
Political cynicism is growing in leaps and bounds, and if the President and the men around him continue to be in a state of denial, which the smug yellow media helps to foster, the last three years of the Aquino administration will surely be headed towards a boulevard of broken dreams and failed promises.