Saturday, September 04, 2004

Hogging the Pork Barrel

Hogging the pork barrel

Updated 00:28am (Mla time) Sept 04, 2004
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the September 4, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

KUDOS to Senators Joker Arroyo, Panfilo Lacson, Alfredo Lim and Manuel Roxas for joining Senate President Franklin Drilon in giving up their pork barrel allocations in the current general appropriations bill. They deserve the highest praise for their selflessness compared to the continuing greed of their colleagues who have clung to their dubious perquisites despite general public disgust over their imperviousness to the serious financial crisis of the country that requires sacrifice from everyone, especially its leaders.

Some of those who are reluctant to give up their extraordinary privileges are trying to justify their cupidity by arguing that they have certain commitments and promises to fulfill to their constituents, who are the ones ultimately to suffer with the abolition of the pork barrel. That is hogwash, of course. They are just being piggish because their real intention is to advance their own finances, not only through transfer of some of their pork barrel allocation to their own personal accounts but also through the exaction of the usual kickbacks from crooked contractors for the public projects to which the rest of their fund is devoted.

Especially hypocritical is the change of heart of some party-list representatives who were so opposed to the pork barrel, calling it a massive theft of public funds, when they were still private citizens and not honorable members of the House of Representatives. Now they are singing a different tune as potential beneficiaries of the very abuse they attacked so self-righteously and doggedly before. It is possible that their previous commendable stand against the pork barrel might have been one of the reasons why their party was favored by the electorate, but that is no longer important. So soon have these pretenders blithely rejected their past principles in favor of present profits.

House Speaker Jose de Venecia has launched a donation campaign to induce his colleagues in the House of Representatives to make personal donations to the government in order to lighten the current financial crisis. He has himself given P1 million of his own money to what he calls a Freedom Fund to reduce the national deficit. He is hoping others will follow suit, with the 5,000 richest families to also contribute P1 million each, for a total amount of P5 billion. This would not include the sums that could come from the congressmen themselves which could make up a tidy fortune, too if they would be so generous.

Having a suspicious mind when it comes to politicians' supposedly affirmative gambits, I have the feeling that the Speaker's donation campaign has a secret egocentric and ungenerous motive. While conceding and praising its announced purpose, I think it is also a scheme to save the pork barrel. The leader of the House knows the sentiment of its members, and that sentiment is selfish. There are a few conscientious souls in that suspect chamber who detest the pork barrel and are prepared, nay, determined, to kill it once and for all. However, the great majority of the chosen representatives of the people in the lower (the "l" is not capitalized) House are prepared, nay determined, to save it.

Perhaps Speaker De Venecia is hoping that if his Freedom Fund succeeds and is moreover supplemented with the voluntary donations of the members of the House of Representatives, it will no longer be necessary to talk about removing or reducing the pork barrel. The current effort against it will be abandoned and Congress can quietly go back to the old happy system and continue enjoying the perquisites the senators and representatives have been maintaining in the general appropriations law every year.

That's a bad dream, or better still, a nightmare if you will. The current financial crisis, coupled by the increased revulsion against this monstrous abuse of the people's money by the grasping few in Congress and MalacaƱang, can no longer save the pork barrel. Attacking it before was merely fashionable and pro forma for public consumption, and not many people paid attention. President Joseph Estrada was dutifully applauded when he announced its abolition as a major policy of his administration, but nobody complained when the pork barrel remained untouched. But it is different now because the people are fed up and the public treasury is washed up.

It is incredible that, according to verifiable statistics reported in this paper, the members of Congress receive a total of P20 billion in pork barrel allocations every year -- P65 million for each representative and P200 million for each senator. That fantastic amount could be better used to serve more urgent public needs like the establishment of more schools, health centers and hospitals, the purchase of medicines for the needy, the hiring of better teachers and the increase of their salaries, the construction of feeder roads, and other projects designed to improve the life of the sovereign people. The government has neglected this basic obligation, in favor of the abusive few who enjoy the pork barrel.

How much longer will the nation endure this tyranny of avarice? There must be an end to its supine toleration by the suffering people.


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