Distributive politics

A lot has been said about pork barrel since we discovered Napoles. Some armchair analysts have called for its abolition and putting the blame solely on members of Congress for ghost deliveries and kickbacks. I won’t go into that because congressmen can very well defend themselves. But presidential pork is not pork is again erroneous. The operative term is discretionary.

A lot has been said about pork barrel since we discovered Napoles. Some armchair analysts have called for its abolition and putting the blame solely on members of Congress for ghost deliveries and kickbacks. I won’t go into that because congressmen can very well defend themselves. But presidential pork is not pork is again erroneous. The operative term is discretionary.

Let me be clear and be basic about the three branches of government: Legislative enacts, Executive implements and Judiciary interprets. Clearly, for syndicates like Napoles, it is critical to have an insider in DBM and contacts among implementing agencies. From their MO, as narrated by Ben Luy (who understands the difference between a SARO and an NCA), the syndicates advance the cash; offer percentages to the legislator and are aware of the SOP per agency. Only corrupt legislators would agree to a ghost delivery. But not all legislators are corrupt. Unfortunately, instead of reforming the process, it was decided that “abolishing” it was easiest just like sweeping dirt under the rug.

I will venture to say that it was just propaganda to have announced, “it is time to abolish pork barrel.” The time would have been apt in 2011 when Aquino II administration first passed its own budget. They knew how the system worked. They knew the weaknesses of PDAF having been members in either the HOR or Senate. In the case of the president, he was a member of both. Part of being a leader is ensuring that you just don’t make sound bytes. It is important that there is a coherent study made so options are identified, considered and proposed. Announcing is just the easiest task. And that is where things got muddled.

You just can’t remove pork unless you amend the Constitution. There are three principles that are valuable in this national conversation we are having. First is the principle of taxation with representation; second, power of the purse; and third, is one legislator, one vote. Clearly, Congress will just rename or realign it. It has done so from CDF to PDAF and realign it will for FY 2014.

Most of the literature on “distributive politics begins with normative or statistical characterizations of results. Some appears to be motivated by attitudes towards the distribution of benefits to districts (normally that it is a bad thing) or interest in testing theories about the pattern of distribution (e.g. “universalistic” or “majoritarian” or “partisan”).“

Even the definition of “pork- barrel politics,” is shaped by analytic as well as normative perspectives. For many, like David Baron (1991: 57), “pork-barrel politics” is a subset of “distributive politics.” Each involves concentrated benefits and “collectivization of costs,” but programs become “pork-barrel” when costs exceed social benefits. To others, pork-barrel politics is defined by its “distribution—in essence whether it is distributed in lumps to discrete constituencies.“

If pork-barrel politics is defined by social inefficiency then it is largely in the eye of the beholder—“one man’s pork is another’s vital national program.” Outcomes are not causes. In fact, most of the time, very little that legislators—particularly the ones in office at a given moment—do have anything to do with the distribution. Distributive effects are a major consideration in how legislators make decisions—in part because it is often easier for them to judge which districts are helped or hurt by a spending or regulatory or tax change than whether it is good “for the nation” (Peterson 1995). But individual members can influence only small portions of those effects at a given time.

“Pork-barrel politics” refers to decisions made by political authorities with the intent of distributing discreet benefits on a geographic basis—either to their own constituencies or to some other politician’s constituency. It analyzes the anatomy or physiology of decision processes. Is it good or bad? The answer there has always been, it depends.

As is traditional for students of budgeting, the demand side asks who wants something and why? The supply side asks how the people who face demands decide what to do about them.

Joseph White argues that standard understandings of distributive politics tend to be misguided for a series of reasons. The most significant are: “normative distaste for what gets called “pork-barrel” decision-making is highly questionable; the “electoral connection” between gaining benefits and getting re-elected is poorly understood—and not just because all efforts to measure it statistically are bound to fail; the motivations of participants in the process are more varied and complex than is usually understood; and there is no single “pork-barrel politics.” Instead, decision-making about distributive politics changes over time and with the program involved. It can be shaped by personalities—who hold a key position. There is some process of historical development, but there are also cyclical patterns.”

It has been said, “government makes provision of collective goods more efficient by separating the processes for raising funds and providing goods. As government raises funds, voters select representatives to decide what to buy, for whom. Legislators’ work to get funds distributed to their districts, for the items their districts most need or desire. Districts want different things (urban mass transit, farm price stabilization, harbors dredged, school buildings, health services improved).

Legislators represent those different utilities in the distribution process, much as individuals in a market purchase the goods they value most. In the ideal situation, the legislature then becomes a fairer and more efficient market than is possible in the private realm. It is fairer because legislators have more equal resources than consumers have. There lies the principle of “one legislator, one vote.” It is more efficient because the transaction costs of collecting funds are much lower than the costs of organizing collections from each possible set of beneficiaries for each possible benefit.”

The right question to ask about the social effects of “pork-barreling,” then, is whether the proper social purpose—delivering different benefits to districts and nationwide in a way that matches their different utilities —is met by the processes of distribution. One should always remember that the power of the purse is the basis of legislative power, and thus of popular control of the government.

Constitutional democracy is essentially “government by a legislature. Executives are suspect for a reason. Democracy is based on representation of conflicting voices; this representation is what allows a legislature to somewhat substitute for the voices of individuals in a town meeting or assembly. Electing an executive cannot serve the same purpose. Selecting the national leader can only be “representative” if the nation has one voice, one set of beliefs. Taken to its logical extreme, government by an executive who is presumed to embody the voice of the people is not democracy. The belief that executives should rule in “the national” (or people’s) interest, and that legislatures mainly add division and weakness, is one of the defining aspects of fascism (Katznelson 2013). So when you want to shout, “abolish Congress,” think first.

A legislature cannot, however, “specify all spending choices. Thus, some executive discretion is imperative. The danger of executive discretion, however, is that the executive may use it to dominate legislators. The framers knew from experience that the King could buy support from members of Parliament by offering them offices and emoluments. But elected or unelected bosses can influence legislators’ prospects for re-election by allocating benefits to constituents if the legislator votes correctly, and withholding them if they do not. This power is not absolute—a constituency may take pride in protesting the evil boss, and vote regularly for insurgents. But that is not the norm if the ability to distribute benefits is held by the executive.”

Legislators’ have a variety of concerns: re-election, influence within Congress, and good public policy. These views shape both how they operate within Congress and how they present themselves to their constituencies (Fenno 1973, 1978). And that is why membership in the Committee on Appropriations becomes a priority to any legislator.

Distributive politics gives legislators, sometimes literally, concrete accomplishments than engaging in public policy, which takes time to debate upon and enact.

We must always remember “pork” is a taste preference that varies across constituencies. There is no such a thing as one size fits all. It is therefore in understanding distributive politics that one can institute reforms. Reforms can be linking development plans with pork; putting together a provincial “marshal plan” for the poorest provinces with pork; responding for an Infrastructure Needs List at the provincial level via matching funds via pork; Zero backlog of schools in a district through pork; earmarking pork for senior citizens and health requirements; mitigating and controlling flooding in NCR via the combined pork of NCR solons; etc.


Published in Manila Times, September 16, 2013: http://www.manilatimes.net/distributive-politics/40607/


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheLOBBYiST.
About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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