A buffet of pork: P25 billion at lawmakers' discretion
The origin of the term “pork barrel” dates back to a time when refrigerators had not yet been invented. It was an old Western custom to preserve meat in actual wooden barrels for future consumption.
Connoting fat and grease and stored resources, the term has since seeped into ordinary conversations as a metaphor for political largesse.
In the Philippine setting, pork barrel refers to congressional allocations such as the priority development assistance fund (PDAF), financial subsidies to local government units (FSLGU), and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) lump sum allocations for infrastructure projects identified by Congress.
Simply put, it’s that portion of the national budget that is widely left to the legislators’ discretion when it comes to how the funds are spent.
Pork barrel funds account for a little over 1 percent of the national budget, but is a formidable source of a lawmaker's influence. In the P1.816 trillion general appropriations act for this year, P24.89 billion is set aside for congressional allocations.
A congressman gets to allocate P70 million in pork barrel funds each year while a senator gets P200 million. They will be quick to point out that the money is never coursed through them – rather, the funds are released directly to the agencies or LGUs tasked to implement the priority projects and programs that the legislators have identified.
These “priority projects and programs” may be in the form of “hard” projects or infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, school buildings, and the like. Pork barrel funds may also be allocated for “soft,” non-infrastructure projects that are more in the vein of financial assistance like scholarships and livelihood programs.
For congressmen, funds are split such that P30 million of each House member’s pork barrel are for “soft” programs and the remaining P40 million are for “hard” programs. For senators, their pork barrel is evenly split – P100 million should be for “soft” projects, and P100 million for “hard” projects.
There is a menu of “hard” and “soft” projects that can be funded using congressional allocations.
Legislators are supposed to refer to this listing when deciding on what projects to identify for their constituents. The menu is contained in the special provisions of the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA).
A review of the GAAs in recent years shows that the pork barrel menu has offered the same choices to Congress, buffet-style.
Legislators can pick from the following projects:
- Education – e.g. scholarships
- Health – e.g. financial assistance to indigent patients, purchase of medical equipment
- Livelihood/ social services
- Rural electrification
- Water supply – e.g. construction of water system, installation of pipes/pumps/tanks
- Financial assistance – for specific programs and projects of LGUs
- Public works – e.g. roads, bridges, flood control, school buildings, hospitals, health facilities,
- public markets, multi-purpose buildings and pavements
- Peace and order – purchase of firetrucks and firefighting equipment, patrol vehicles, prisoners’
- vans, multicabs, police patrol equipment, construction/repair of fire stations, police stations, jails
- Forest management
- Arts and culture
While there is a pork menu, there is no fixed formula on how legislators pick their “priority” projects.
“Pagpasok ng isang congressman sa isang bayan o isang barangay, ang dami pong resolusyon ang tatanggapin...may resolution ang teachers, may resolution ng barangay captain sa farm-to market road, may resolution ang mga konsehal sa multi-purpose building, may resolution ang farmers sectors sa irrigation,” says Deputy Speaker and Quezon 4th District Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III in an interview with GMA News.
All these requests cannot be accommodated at the same time.
In Tañada’s case, he calls for public consultations. “Pinupulong namin yung mga constituents sa isang lugar at tinatanong na, ‘o, meron po kaming natanggap na lima, anim, pitong resolution na humihingi po ng allocation para sa inyong barangay; sa tingin ba ho ninyo, ano ang priority kasi hindi pwedeng sabay- sabay?’” he says.
The task of prioritizing pork barrel projects is just as taxing for senators. Since their constituents are not bound by legislative districts, their offices receive requests for pork-funded projects from all over the country.
“We compile these requests – in my case, I have a staff member who compiles these, and we service them according to the time that they were submitted to us and the priority,” explains Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile in an interview.
“Ako, I provide money for farm-to-market roads, opening of new roads to inaccessible settlements... and then a part of my allocation, I put them in hospitals for the use of indigents who cannot afford the cost of medication,” Enrile adds.
Legislators submit their list of pork-funded projects to the Department of Budget and Management for processing. Once the DBM approves the projects, the agency issues a special allotment release order (SARO).
For infrastructure products, the SARO serves as the basis for conducting biddings; afterwards, DBM comes out with a Notice of Cash Allocation (NCA) as payment for the construction.
When it comes to financial assistance, Tañada says congressmen can designate the funds to a government agency. “For example, if it’s financial assistance for patients, you can nominate a certain amount to the DSWD and then have a memorandum of agreement with the DSWD that a certain amount can be released for every indigent patient that will request – of course, with the congressman’s signature,” he says.
A House member may be elected for up to three consecutive terms or nine years in office; a senator may serve up to two consecutive terms, or a total of 12 years.
Depending on how long they get to keep their posts, each congressman has at his discretion anywhere from P210 million to P630 million, while each senator gets to allocate anywhere from P1.2 billion to P2.4 billion in pork barrel funds. — with the GMA News Special Assigments Team/RSJ/HS, GMA News