"This is because lawmakers are allowed to engage in the business of project identification."
Over the years, it appears to have become obligatory for the Speaker of the House of Representatives to make this statement at the end of the national-budget making process: “We have produced a budget that is free of pork.”
Newly-installed Speaker Lord Allan Velasco did not deviate from this practice upon the Lower House’s third-reading approval of the 2021 General Appropriations Act. On October 16, the Speaker said: “We made sure that this is a constitutional budget based on the decision of the Supreme Court. We are all lawyers here and we are making sure that there is no pork in the (2021) budget.”
In the decision that Speaker Velasco referred to, the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the long-standing practice in which members of Congress “intervene, assume or participate in any of the various stages of the budget’s execution, such as, but not limited to, the areas of project identification, modification and revision of project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.”
Speaker Velasco appears to be a bright and decent young man eager to use the powers of his high office in a way that is most compliant with the norms of good governance and most beneficial to the progress of the nation and the well-being of the Filipino people. He appears eager to say and do the right things. But, with all due respect, the youthful representative of Marinduque should have deviated from the hoary practice, indulged in by a succession of highly political Speakers, of declaring a newly approved national budget pork-free.
What he should have said was that the House of Representatives under his leadership had strived to reduce pork to a minimum. That was the courageous and honest things to say. The Filipino people would have believed him and given him credit for straight talk. As it is, hardly any sufficiently knowledgeable Filipino believed his October 16 statement that the 2021 national budget is pork-free.
This stark reality is—in his heart of hearts, Speaker Velasco must know this—that in this country, there is no such thing as a pork-free national budget. Somewhat porky budgets, always; a completely pork-free budget, never. Whether the national budgets approved by the House of Representatives have become progressively porkier is debatable; what is beyond debate is that the configuration of some really porky items, and the amounts involved, have been nothing short of unconscionable. And the way the “porkmongers” have gone about their business—the insertions that delayed the 2019 budget readily come to mind—has been downright obscene.
Why can there be no completely pork-free national budgets in this country? The answer is indicated by the above-quoted passages from the Supreme Court decision. Philippine lawmakers “intervene and participate in the various stages of the budget’s execution” through “project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment.”
As long as House representatives—and, to a lesser extent, senators—are allowed to identify projects for inclusion in the National Expenditure Program, there will always be pork in the national budget. If a lawmaker succeeds in getting a project included in the NEP, the contractor will reward him for his identification work. It then follows that the project’s cost will have to be padded to accommodate the representative’s or the senator’s reward. Thus is pork born.
As long as lawmakers are allowed to engage in the business of project identification—properly, the work of the Executive Department line agencies—there will never be a pork-free national budget.