In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. For nine months he journeyed from one end to the other, the end result was Democracy in America; a work that remains today as one of the most searing and insightful studies of republican and representative politics ever written. Oddly, Tocqueville’s analysis of the developing political sphere of the United States is an appropriate place to begin delving into pork barrel and its subsequent repudiation in civil society.
It should come as no surprise that the general outline of the Philippine government is modeled on the representative republic of the United States; with a few tweaks and changes to fit the political and social pressures that were extant at the time of founding. Chief among them is the tripartite separation of powers, as well as the split of Congress into two houses. As we know, unlike the United States, our Senate takes on a national focus, however the House of Representatives maintains its core conceit: Representatives elected by districts to serve the needs of the people. Thus, it should come as no surprise that ‘pork barrel’ was a natural offshoot of that very focus. As Tocqueville put it:
"Now, certainly up to this time, in every nation of the world, those with no property or those whose property was too modest to allow them to live comfortably without working always comprised the greatest number. Therefore, universal suffrage really does entrust the government of society to the poor.
The vexing influence occasionally exercised by the power of the people on state finances was very evident in certain democratic republics of the ancient world in which the public treasury was drained away to help the poorest citizens or to provide the people with games and spectacles. It is true that the representative system was almost unknown in the ancient world.
Nowadays, popular passions find it more difficult to thrive in public affairs; however, you can guarantee that in the long run, the delegate will always in the end conform to the opinions of his constituents and support their inclinations as well as their interests.”
The unique nature of the American democratic experiment derived from the fusion of national perspectives on governance and oversight, with a localized drive to be responsive and responsible to constituent groups. The fact is that elected representatives, first and foremost, must be looking out for the needs of their constituents. They are in the best position to help direct needed programs and funding to address their constituents unique needs. We adopted this focus in two ways: A formalized pork barrel system and the party-list system. Both were conceived with the idea of meeting and addressing the needs of the underserved.
Tocqueville frequently made mention of the innovation of universal suffrage in the United States. For him, and many during the 19th century, this was practically antithetical to good governance. The reason being simple: By giving the poor the vote, government would eventually shift its focus to meeting the needs of the impoverished (in modern terminology: Human development). And whether we like it or not, the only way to achieve this is by allocating fiscal resources to this end.
"…when public authority is in the hands of the people, they, as the sovereign power, seek out improvements in every quarter because of their own discontent.
The spirit of improvement then infiltrates a thousand different areas; it delves into endless detail and above all advocates those sorts of improvements which cannot be achieved without payment; for its concern is to better the condition of the poor who cannot help themselves.
Furthermore, an aimless restlessness permeates democratic societies where a kind of everlasting excitement stimulates all sorts of innovations which almost always involve expense.
In monarchies and aristocracies, the men of ambition flatter the sovereigns normal taste for renown and power and thereby often drive him to spend a great deal of money.
in democracies where sovereign power is always in need of funds, its favors can hardly be won except by increasing its prosperity and that can almost never be achieved without money.
In addition, when the people start to reflect upon their own positions, a host of needs arise which are they had not felt at first and which cannot be satisfied except by having recourse to state assets. The result is that public expenditures seems to increase with the growth of civilization and the taxes rise as knowledge spreads.”
Thus, the requirements of sectoral and district representatives is far from enrichment, instead it is sacrifice and service born of crafting laws and proposing projects that meet the developmental needs of their poorest and most underserved constituents. The all-important role of the Executive is then to implement those plans and shepherd the equitable growth of a nation.
Moving past that long-winded groundlaying, this leads us to the current morass we find ourselves in now. Pork barrel, as it is currently constituted, has not met the development needs of constituents on the whole (there are many notable exceptions). By the same token, it can be argued that the party-list system, as it is currently constructed, has also failed to wholly achieve its purpose. Both are noble concepts that have not quite achieved their potential. Yet, both still have utility within our political milieu. The issue at hand is not whether pork barrel should exist or not, it is whether its current form should exist or not. The simple and unequivocal answer is NO. Yet, that distinct “No” ignores the opportunity to craft a system that is responsive to the needs of far-flung constituencies, while filtering out the readily apparent flaws in the current system.
The failure to conceptualize both the fall out of completely eliminating pork and not replacing it with a worthy system designed to achieve the goals of localized development is vexing from a political maturity perspective. While on the one hand, the Aquino administration is taking steps to eliminate Congressional pork barrel as its currently constructed and replace it with a system that attempts to achieve pork’s original laudable goals with its inefficiencies and susceptibility to corruption, civil society seems hell-bent on taking to the proverbial streets. A deeper discussion and presentation of the administration’s efforts can be found here.
A full discussion of the proposed new line item budget will occur another time, but suffice it to say I think the system is responsive, flexible, and has the potential to address the systemic issues that plagued PDAF, while actually meeting the needs of the constituencies and sectors throughout the Philippines. What remains to be seen is how the system will be implemented, and the final form it will take. My hope is that the Aquino administration will engage civil society in dialogue to craft a truly responsive and modern targeted development system. That being said, agree with his proposed reforms or not, they present a clear option for institutional change in the Philippines. Without putting to fine a point on it, an attempt to completely overhaul a country’s budgeting system is unparalleled. Yet, instead of engaging the proposed solution, or offering usable alternatives for discussion, all that is being heard is strident criticisms composed of veiled threats and motherhood statements.
While I admire the passion and applaud the civic mindedness that is driving the anti-pork barrel protests, I cannot help but feel that we are missing a key opportunity to grow as a nation and body politic. Instead of creating an environment of collaborative solution building, we seem to be slipping into the traditional deployment of divisive motherhood statements and fear-mongering. This is and of itself a key issue: Where there seemed to be a noticeable shift towards cultures of hope and change driven by anger over civil society iniquities of the past, we appear to be slipping back into the trap of cultures of fear and anger. Fear for the money we are losing, fear of the corrupt, fear that society is spiraling out of control. These are old forms of protesting and change-making. Fear is short-sighted and short-term. And quite frankly it leads us to our current state: The inability to see a nuanced path towards solving the problems of the country. Positive enhancements of the country derived from pork barrel allocations are denied, anything and everything touched by it and discretionary funds is deemed corrupt.
The Weight of Being Undefined
On Twitter, I have been active in critiquing the current popular discourse on pork barrel, as well as the almost knee-jerk reaction of civil society to take to the ‘streets’; or at least in this case swarm Luneta on August 26th for a multi-sectoral ‘picnic-in.’ There are many men and women online who are speaking out in nuanced terms about what must be done. Sadly though, it is almost as if their voices is being drowned out, snowed under by epal-loving politicians and their coterie of forgiving supporters. Militancy, useless in our current political milieu, is making a comeback. There is a real and present fear that a movement that was supposed to be multi-sectoral in nature, but agnostic in ideology, is being co-opted in service of hidden and public ideological agendas. At the heart of this potential subversion of a supposed egalitarian activity is the relatively undefined objective of the march. It first developed as a way for indignant members of civil society to come together and express their anger towards pork barrel. With the influx of special interests into the equation with their own unique ideologically tinged agendas added to the mix, the end result is a sort of amorphous Frankenstein-esque counterproductive sit-in; where groups are competing with each other for face time and space, all the while the originators of the protest are being squeezed out of the picture; subsumed under and avalanche of hidden and public agendas, driven by curious ideology. Recently, I engaged in conversation with someone who was hoping for a ‘critical mass’ of people. My questions were simple: A critical mass to achieve what? How many people are needed to achieve the goals of the march; a march that is now being replicated throughout the country, but with the same fundamental flaw: Other than demonstrating how angry people are, what exactly is trying to be achieved? The abolition of pork? The institution of a new system in its place? No new system? A march on Malacanang? The overthrow of the government? What objective is achieved by bringing together a million people? What is so important about that number?
I shall leave the dissection of the current status of August 26 to a supporter in Jego Ragragio, who has done that far better than I can. Additionally, Cocoy has effectively posited a counter-argument to questionable utility of the Luneta protest, while shining a damning light on the rampant hypocrisy that is becoming apparent. Instead, I will focus on lessons to be learned by the two national heroes the Luneta Million Person March is attempting to emulate: Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal.
Under the Eyes of Heroes: Rizal, Bonifacio, and the Killing Grounds of the Bagumbayan
The connection to Andres Bonifacio is relatively abstract in nature, but powerful in its own right. 2013 is the celebration of Bonifacio 150. August 26 was the culmination of the days long meeting of the Katipunan in 1896 that led to the formal declaration of war with Spain. Within our historical context there are only a handful of more powerful days. While the superficial connection between Bonifacio and the Million Person March exists, a deeper understanding of Bonifacio and the Katipunan calls into question the long-term effectivity of the Million Person March and, really, its connection to Bonifacio. In many ways, the protest in and of itself is far too premature. Marches like the US Civil Rights Million Man March (of which the Luneta March is also attempting to force a connection) were the culmination of months long activities. in the case of the Civil Rights movement that involved convoys that criss-crossed the nation, whipping up support for the nascent movement, while educating people on the gross human rights violations of the existing legal regime. It was an immense undertaking fraught with danger, one that is in no way shape or form being replicated here. Instead we are taking the easy route, zipping right to the march while forgetting everything that is needed prior.
In the case of Bonifacio and the Katipunan, despite what may be popular interpretations of their origins, they did not spring into being in 1896 fully formed. Bonifacio spent years, along with other like minded Filipinos, working the countryside, reaching out to other Filipinos and educating them on the iniquities of the Spanish regime. This was a process that begun with the Propaganda Movement, that reached its culmination with Jose Rizal, and was translated and disseminated throughout Manila and its surrounding environs by the grassroots brilliance of Andres Bonifacio and other members of the Katipunan. There was an element of invigoration. People did not go to the Katipunan, the Katipunan went to them. In terms of the Million Person March this is a critical flaw in its make-up. The roots of pork barrel corruption are local; driven by local projects to craft a culture of patronage on a grassroots level. The solution then is not in Luneta, in the middle of urban Manila. It is in the countryside, among the people. It is protesting the most egregious of pork barrel expenditures, it is going after the congressmen, party-list members, and senators who have abused the pork barrel system for personal and political gain. The fact is, the tools are readily available now to counter-check our elected representatives activities. Yet, collectively we are not using them. Transparency only works if the tools used to create transparency are utilized. I have repeatedly said this, but civil society has to institutionalize the use of transparency tools at our disposal. Else what is the point of their existence? We have to be proactive in checking government expenditures and uses of funds. This almost infantile demand for someone else to solve our problems has no place in a politically mature country. This is one of the most important lessons from the Katipunan and Bonifacio: You have to make your advocacies understandable and important on a grassroots level. It is not about telling them what they should believe, it is about making them feel it, dream of it, and yearn for it. Whatever that ‘it’ may be.
The fact is the protest, despite what supporters may say otherwise, is designed to force the Aquino administration to solve the problem of pork barrel, in this case through its abolition (something that is actually antithetical to our system of government). It is shifting the locus of responsibility outward. Again, instead of taking responsibility for our own backyard, for the actions of our elected representatives (reference above), we are demanding that reform comes from the top. For all of the extant critiques of pork barrel as patronage and emblematic of a failed padrino culture, so too is our demand for others to fix the problems of the country. One of the chief criticisms of the Filipino understanding of leadership is that it is rooted in the antiquated headship model of leadership. The ‘leader’ is the benevolent dictator, who administers to the needs of the people and frees them from broader responsibility. In other words, the leader is the godfather. This collective call to the President to fix the problem fits right in our cultural proclivity for strong leadership that removes the locus of responsibility for change and maturity from our collective shoulders.
That cultural issue leads directly into one of the primarily advocacies of Jose Rizal. By and large, almost all of us are familiar with Rizal’s call at the end of El Filibusterismo:
"So, while the Filipino people has not the sufficient energy to proclaim, with head erect and bosom bared, its rights to social life, and to guarantee it with its sacrifices, with its own blood…while we see them wrap themselves up in their egotism and with a forced smile praise the most iniquitous actions, begging with their eyes a portion of the booty - why grant them liberty? With Spain or without Spain they would always be the same, and perhaps worst! Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"
Here we come to the crux of the current situation, the morass in which we find ourselves. The anti-pork barrel movement as it is presently constituted is still-born, it failed before it could even begin because of one simple reason: No one is truly being called to task for their actions in the past. In an almost direct slap to the face of Jose Rizal, his name is being used on Twitter to support the political pandering of elected officials like Senator Alan Peter Cayetano. Senator Cayetano, as soon as it became politically expedient, filed a resolution calling for the abolition of pork barrel. Yet, over the last few years he has willfully spent his entire PDAF allocation (and then some). Even worse, he and his sister (Senator Pia Cayetano) in 2012 alone funneled 70M pesos into Taguig City; a city that boasts Lani Cayetano as its mayor. Lani is Alan Peter’s wife. This is not an isolated incident, nearly every single senator who is now gleefully pandering to the sentiments of the discontent middle class, has utilized their PDAF allocations in one form or another. And while they are calling for transparency and accountability, they are failing even the simple litmus test of releasing all documents relating to their PDAF expenditures. Even worse, we collectively are failing to demand that essential action from them. There are tyrants in our midst and we are doing nothing to bring them to heel.
This sort of questionable silence is not only limited to the Senate. Party list groups, such as Bayan Muna and even Akbayan (for whom I have immense respect) are also guilty of this. They utilized PDAF, spending it on any number of questionable soft expenditures that are ripe for abuse and patronage, in years past. At times they even took to the newspapers demanding that their fair share of PDAF been released immediately. Yet, at the first sign of the shifting tide in public sentiment, they jumped on the abolition bandwagon. Even more damning, senators, congressmen, and party list groups alike have utilized PDAF during the first half of 2013. The argument that they only realized the scope of the abuse of PDAF after the release of the Commission on Audit does not wash. That audit was ordered in 2010 to cover the years of 2007-2009. I find it impossible to believe that only President Aquino suspected that something was up during those years. Elected representatives knew that something was rotten, they knew the system was being abused. But they did nothing as long as they got their fair share of the pie. The fact that we are letting them get off scot free, the fact that we are allowing them to continue with their hypocrisy, to attend rallies and pretend they’ve always been on the side of transparency and accountability, is a slap in the face of every Filipino. And most importantly a slap in the face of Jose Rizal. We are making his words prophetic. These men and women have been begging for a portion of the booty, and we are allowing them to have it. What I hope happens is on the Killing Fields of Bagumbayan, we put an end to sacred idols and demand accountability from all who used pork barrel. If they refuse, I hope the organizers of the March throw them out. The call is clear: All who used to PDAF must turnover their documents to the public. Be leaders you purport to be. Lead the efforts to bring transparency to government.
Let me be clear: Our failure to demand accountability and transparency from members of Congress who have used PDAF in the past and are now calling for its abolition, who are joining the protest, is our hypocrisy in one of its worst forms. Whether they used it correctly or not is beside the point; the fact of the matter is I find it highly believable that many have used pork barrel as it was intended, to help the people. It is our silence, our unquestioning acquiescence to their refusal to be consciously transparent, that galls. Bonifacio and Rizal alike had little problem criticizing and attacking allies and opponents equally. The failure to do so is the surest sign of a politically immature people. The sad truth is, we might not be living up to what Rizal and Bonifacio dreamed for the Filipino. Can we truly say our heads are held high, when we are standing shoulder to should with men and women who have happily utilized the system, and will continue to do so as long as we let them.
The Million Personal March on Luneta to demand the abolition of the pork barrel system will take place under the eyes of two of our greatest heroes. The blood of heroes and martyrs has seeped into the soil of Bagumbayan. And in many ways we face a crisis; one of conscience and maturity, of political growth and insightfulness. Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio demanded first and foremost that social change begins with the individual; with their growth and maturity as active and engaged citizens. Rizal believed fervently in education, Bonifacio in the development of a moral and ethical culture governing our civic activities. Our failure to do so leads directly to the failure of our nation to grow. In many ways, I do support people who choose to attend the Million Person March. But, I will not be there, I cannot support it for all the reasons I have outlined. I want the abolition of the existing pork barrel system. But the ways in which we are approaching the problem do not speak to growth, but stagnation.
Jose Rizal crafted three major works offering a road map to nationalism for the Philippines. His annotated Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas drew attention to our past, Noli me Tangere brought the iniquities of his present into stark relief, while El Filibusterismo offered something else: A vision of a failed future and an opportunity for redemption for the Filipino people. That powerful passage I quoted above speaks directly to that opportunity for redemption. It is a change that begins within, that connects us all deeply and intrinsically, that binds us together as a nation. Eventually, our penchant for divisive action and protest movements must give way to collaborative nation-building. Our reaction to the current crisis will tell more than anything the path this nation will take.