What’s in a name?

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AS SOME congressmen have argued, not necessarily because they themselves benefit from it, pork barrel funds have been known to help far-flung communities, even if it’s only in the form of a basketball court, a bridge, a road, or a barangay hall.

Some pork barrel-built roads do lead to nowhere, and pork barrel-built barangay halls have been known to leak like sieves when it rains. But that isn’t always the case. The chances are one can find, somewhere in the length and breadth of this archipelago, roads that do start and end somewhere, and barangay halls that have been known to adequately shelter community residents when it doesn’t only rain, but pours.

But perhaps unbeknownst to even more Filipinos, pork barrel funds have also been used to repair the roofs of state university colleges and to keep their toilets in reasonably working order.

It sounds, and actually is, an instance of one hand’s giving what the other has taken away, but at the University of the Philippines, the pork barrel funds of some senators have been used to mend leaking roofs, remodel classrooms, upgrade laboratories, and generally upgrade facilities.

It’s true that the need for funds for such repairs and upgrading has over the years been the result of the constant budget cuts Congress has been implementing in the futile and oxymoronic hope that state universities will be self-sufficient, but never mind. UP Presidents, UP college deans and other UP administrators, in the face of cuts in the maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) budget of UP, aren’t about to turn down funds crucial to maintaining and upgrading laboratories, libraries and such other facilities necessary for meeting UP’s mandate as the country’s premier university.

The UP College of Mass Communication, for example, was able to construct two out of the three buildings of its Media Center out of the pork barrel funds of three senators. The UP College of Law’s leaking roof was a similar beneficiary of pork barrel funds, as have other colleges in the UP System.

But while such assistance has been a large part of the external assistance UP has received from, among others, its alumni, it isn’t necessarily a convincing argument against the proposal, particularly the bill filed by the Makabayan party list group in the House of Representatives, to abolish the pork barrel. Those instances in which the fund has been used for legitimate ends might be exceptions rather than the rule.

No one has so far done a survey to determine just how much pork barrel funds have benefitted the communities as well as such public institutions as public schools, state universities, and health services, and how much has gone into the pockets of politicians and their partners in crime. But even without that information, which admittedly would be difficult to generate, the emerging consensus seems to be that the pork barrel system is too far gone, too much a source of corruption, and generally too prone to misuse to preserve, and that no amount of “safeguards” will prevent its abuse.

Among the least hasty generalizations one can make about Philippine politics and governance is that every attempt, no matter how well-meaning and well-crafted, to correct defective systems, practices, and even laws seem to either end up making things worse, or to nevertheless enable the corrupt to find the most creative ways to access public funds, anyway.

No matter how carefully and even beautifully Philippine laws are worded, for example, they somehow end up being implemented either badly, or, when they’re amended, end up making things worse. The debasement of language–its use to conceal the worst intentions–is among the most obvious characteristics of Philippine politics and governance. It isn’t a device unique to Filipino politicians, or for that matter, to Filipinos, who did learn from their US mentors– who after all taught them self-governance– how calling them by the most beautiful names can make even the worst seem like the best.

(The US “pivot” to Asia, for example, is being justified in terms of the alleged need to assure regional “stability,” a term which conceals the real intent to make sure that things don’t change enough to endanger US economic interests. Filipino, especially Filipino politicians, have learned from the masters.)

What happened to the party-list law is illustrative. Thanks to both the malevolent ingenuity of that hardy breed called the Filipino politician, who very early saw the party-list system as a more convenient and less expensive way of remaining in Congress, as well as, more recently, the Supreme Court decision allowing established political parties to field nominees as representatives of the “marginalized” and “voiceless,” a law meant to democratize, albeit in a limited way, the representation of the underrepresented in the House of Representatives has become just another means to assure the exact opposite–the continuing and even more pronounced dominance of political dynasties in that chamber.

Exactly the same process has been happening with the Congressional pork barrel funds, whose official name, Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), is a prime example of how well the political elite has mastered the use of the prettiest words to mask the most awful realities.

Only those who’ve been living in a cave since 1946 are under the illusion that the fund has been or is being used mostly for “development,” for rationally and systematically identified “priority” projects, or for helping the citizenry, unless you’re referring to that segment of the citizenry known as politicians.

The process through which pork barrel funds are allocated and accessed is complicated enough, and contains safeguards meant to prevent congressmen and senators as well as private groups and individuals from appropriating the funds for themselves. And yet, by simply inventing out of thin air foundations and other groups and forging the signatures of local officials, an obscure organization of hustlers with delusions of grandeur but very real government connections has managed, so it is alleged, to access P10 billion in public funds since 2003.

The lesson is that anything that can be devised to prevent wrong-doing, corruption, even murder, can be circumvented, and even made to function in the opposite direction in this earthly paradise, thus the logic in the calls for the abolition of the pork barrel. These calls have been made for years, but have not been as persuasive as today, given not only the vast amounts of public funds a handful of conspirators have amassed and the crimes including kidnapping that seem to have been committed in the process.

After years of being tried and tested, the pork barrel has been found wanting. Calling it by another name hasn’t made any difference, and it’s time to do away with it.

(BusinessWorld)

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