Pork barrel has a much more sinister connotation in the Philippines. The term is synonymous with kickbacks and corruption due to the PDAF Scandal. Constitutionally speaking, it is an unacceptable usurpation by members of the legislature of the executive branch’s sole prerogative to implement the budget passed by Congress.
Anti-pork barrel activists are up in arms once more over the reported allocation of up to ₱100 million per congressional district in the 2020 General Appropriations Bill. These appropriations, meant for the implementation of priority projects identified by district representatives, have been tagged as the surreptitious return of the pork barrel system which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark 2013 case of Belgica v. Ochoa.
They’re a bit off the mark. This is pork barrel - but not the type that was struck down by the Court in Belgica.
As explained in Belgica, the term “pork barrel” is a term originating from the United States. In the American context it refers to appropriations in federal budget bills that are earmarked for the implementation of purely local projects within a certain congressional district.
In the Philippine sense, however, pork barrel has taken on a significantly different meaning. Congressional pork barrel is understood to refer to lump-sum discretionary funds which allow legislators to participate in the implementation of the budget, beyond their constitutional oversight power, even after the budget has been enacted into law. The most infamous example of this is the Priority Development Assistance Program (PDAF) which was scrapped by the Supreme Court in Belgica.
In American politics, fiscal conservatives often oppose the inclusion of American-style pork barrel in federal budget legislation as an improper use of federal funds. After all, the U.S. federal system of government provides state governments sufficient mechanisms for internal revenue generation to fund these local initiatives. Thus, conservatives balk at the notion of using federal money to fund the responsibilities of state and local governments.
Meanwhile, pork barrel has a much more sinister connotation in the Philippines. The term is synonymous with kickbacks and corruption due to the PDAF Scandal. Constitutionally speaking, it is an unacceptable usurpation by members of the legislature of the executive branch’s sole prerogative to implement the budget passed by Congress.
So, what kind of pork are we looking at in the 2020 budget? According to the House leadership, the infrastructure projects identified by the congressmen were already included in the National Expenditure Program submitted to Congress by the Department of Budget Management. Once the budget is approved by Congress and signed by the President into law, individual congressmen will no longer play any role in the disbursement of the funds. All in all, based on available information it appears that the pork barrel in the proposed 2020 budget is more akin to American-style hickory ribs than it is to liempo. This type of pork barrel remains permissible under the 1987 Constitution.
The question remains: Should we be worried by the inclusion of American-style earmarks in the Philippine national budget? The answer is no, as long as the Executive, the Commission on Audit, and the Ombudsman put in place the proper safeguards to eliminate the potential for misuse of these funds.
The arguments of American anti-pork activists are difficult to apply under our country’s unitary system of government. Philippine local government units are considerably more reliant on the national government to fund and implement critical local infrastructure programs. Considering the highly centralized nature of the Philippine budget preparation process, however, many projects which are identified by local communities to be essential to their growth and development are slashed by the national government’s budget preparation bureaucracy.
That’s where these congressional earmarks come in. In theory, as national elected officials with local constituencies, district congressmen are in a better position to accurately identify priority local projects in consultation with LGU officials and other stakeholders. Including their recommended projects into the General Appropriations Act would allow the government to close the gaps in its national program of development and give communities a greater voice in the conversation of economic governance.
Of course, including American-style pork in the Philippine budget also serves the political interests of members of Congress, who often claim these projects are their own to curry favor with their voters. The solution to this, however, is not the removal of congressional earmarks from the budget. It would be to pass the Anti-EPAL Act long advocated by the late, great Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago. That, however, is a different matter altogether.