The politics of pork

By Liling Magtolis Briones / Boiled Green Bananas
Business Mirror, Sunday, 23 May 2010 20:48

The rallying cry of the Noynoy-for-President campaign was “No to corruption!” It was a campaign line which many Filipinos responded to. Many voted for him on the assumption that he would take concrete steps against corruption. Now that the elections are over, those who voted for him are asking how he can fulfill his campaign promise of “no to corruption” even as he seeks answers to the formidable challenges confronting his administration.

Challenges to the new administration

As the day of Noynoy’s inauguration draws near, the media have been trying to identify the challenges to his administration. Speculations are rife about the composition of his Cabinet, especially his economic team. I myself have been interviewed by the media on what awaits Noynoy’s presidency. The list is long. The rebuilding of government institutions is a difficult challenge. During the past decades, many of the institutions which formed the warp and woof of governance have been steadily eroded and weakened. These include the Legislative branch of government, the Executive, the Judiciary, the government corporate sector and even independent institutions. Worse, the erosion of public trust in these institutions has led to cynical public acceptance and toleration of inefficiency and corruption.

Concerns have been expressed about political stability in the light of the protests, cases filed and complaints about cheating, violence and vote-buying during the last elections. We all know that disturbances in the political system have repercussions on the economy. Foreign investors want a stable environment. More important, citizens want an environment of peace and justice so they can move on with their lives.

Public finance

The most urgent problem facing the new administration is in the arena of public finance. A huge fiscal deficit awaits Noynoy. At the end of the first quarter alone, the deficit already ballooned to over P100 billion. Serious revenue shortfalls were covered by massive borrowing. At the end of the first half of the year, it is expected that deficit levels will be much higher than targeted, since these were spurred by excessive election spending. Because of the huge fiscal deficit which is right now funded by borrowing, the levels of public debt are rising inexorably.

How will Noynoy and his advisers resolve the deficit? Everyone agrees that borrowing will not be a sustainable solution and that increases in revenue will tame the deficit. The issue is: Who will bear the burden of the deficit? As recommended by the International Monetary Fund, should it be the Filipino consumers, many of whom are poor? If this is Noynoy’s answer, then an increase in value-added tax rates will provide the much-needed additional revenue. The issue of equity will surely be raised by a disappointed and enraged public. If he wants to fulfill the constitutional mandate for a progressive system of taxation, then Noynoy will have to rationalize the perks and incentives which are given to the private sector. Noynoy will have to choose between the millions who look to him for relief from poverty and those who probably contributed to his campaign.

Indeed, who will bear the burdens of the Noynoy administration?

The politics of pork

In the public mind, pork barrel is associated with abuse and corruption. When Butch Abad announced that pork barrel would be used as “pressure point” to ensure a pliant Congress, he was announcing a typical tradpol strategy which GMA practiced with impunity. Does the use of the politics of pork make the Liberal Party any different from the GMA, as well as earlier administrations? If the politics of pork and the corruption associated with it will be used as a tool by the Liberal Party, what does it mean for its election slogan of “no to corruption”? Rep. Edcel Lagman has pointed out that the 2010 pork barrel of congressmen cannot be impounded because of Section 67, “Prohibition Against Impoundment of Appropriations” in the Appropriation Act. The veto message of the President actually imposed a conditional veto on this provision. It refers to additional appropriations approved by Congress in lieu of debt service. It must also be determined whether this provision also applies to pork barrel. The best way to determine whether President Arroyo honored the impoundment provision or actually withheld the pork barrel of the opposition in 2010 is to check the records of DBM.

The elections are just over and there are already indications that the promise of genuine reform might be derailed and that the politics of pork is alive and well.

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