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Vol. IV,  No. 31                               September 5-11, 2004                      Quezon City, Philippines


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Barrels of Controversy

What the current debate on the Malacañang proposal to cut down pork barrel allocations has failed to take into account so far is the question on the nature of these funds and how they have been used through the years.


It all started with a Malacañang proposal to reduce pork barrel allotments for congressmen as a way for the government to cope with the fiscal crisis. Some congressmen objected to the proposal, and thus began the debate.

What the debate has failed to take into account so far is the question on the nature of pork barrel funds and how they have been used through the years.

Definition and origins

Pork barrel funds are commonly associated with congressmen and senators, but it is not only lawmakers who avail of these. Wikipedia defines pork barrel as “a derogatory term used to describe government spending that is intended to enrich constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes.”

“Military spending, public works projects and agricultural subsidies are the most commonly cited examples, but do not exhaust the possibilities,” Wikipedia explains further. “Pork barreling is an important explanation for government deficits.”

According to the American writer William Safire, the term “pork barrel” is derived from a practice of pre-American Civil War days in which masters would give their slaves slated pork in barrels. Wrote a U.S. journalist in 1919: “Oftentimes, the eagerness of the slaves would result in a rush upon the pork barrel, in which each would strive to grab as much as possible for himself. Members of Congress, in their rush to get their local appropriation items…behaved so much like Negro slaves rushing to the pork barrel.”

Prof. Paul Johnson of the Auburn University Department of Political Science defines pork-barrel legislation as: “Appropriations of public funds by Congress (or other legislative assemblies) for projects that do not serve the interests of any large portion of the country's citizenry but are nevertheless vigorously promoted by a small group of legislators because they will pump outside taxpayers' money and resources into the local districts these legislators represent. Successful promotion of such pork-barrel legislation (often through skillful logrolling) is very likely to get the legislator re-elected by his constituents.”

The pork barrel originated in the U.S., but it is not so clear when. But it was already in use as early as 1817, when South Carolina Rep. John Calhoun introduced a Bonus Bill. The bill sought to construct highways connecting the eastern and southern parts of the U.S. to its western frontiers using the earnings Bonus from the Second Bank of the United States.

According to Calhoun, the Bonus Bill was in accordance with general welfare and post roads clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Then President James Madison, although approving of the Bonus Bill’s “economic development” goals, vetoed it as unconstitutional.


In the Philippines, pork barrel funds have been in use at least since the 1930s during the U.S. colonial occupation. Wrote Patricio Diaz in a column for MindaNews: “The spoil system originated from American politics. Just like today, appointive positions then were the preserve of the party in power. These positions, like today, were used to pay political debts.

“The pork barrel in Congress was part of this spoil system. In fact, in the 1930s, pork barrel was like the personal discretionary fund of the members of the Legislature who belonged to the ruling party.”

The pork barrel in the Philippines has assumed various names, most probably because of the term’s less-than-savory connotations. During the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos (1992-1998), it was known as the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF). It is presently known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

Senators presently get P200 million ($3.57 million) each in pork barrel allocations, while House representatives receive P65 million ($1.16 million) each.

“By whatever name and method, “Diaz further wrote, “the pork barrel today has the same ultimate purpose as in the 1930s: privileged politicking by the incumbent at the expense of the government. And, let's be candid about it: in the past, assemblymen spent their pork barrel the way they wanted to; essentially, it's the same today.”

Philippine legislators have mostly used the pork barrel for initiating “public infrastructure” projects in their constituency areas.

No evaluation

And that’s where lies the rub. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), in its 1998 book Pork and Other Perks, reported that pork-funded projects “do not undergo the usual process of evaluation to determine their feasibility.”

Because they are not subject to evaluation, such projects are prone to overpricing. The PCIJ book cites a 1996 report by the Commission on Audit (CoA) revealing that “In some cases, the extent of overpricing reached more than 200 percent of the market prices and government-set costs.”

The book quotes directly from the CoA report thus: “It is alleged that the proponent legislator connived with the government officials concerned, and the supplier and contractor to obtain the commissions, ‘standard operating procedures,’ or kickbacks from the transaction.”

Through much of contemporary Philippine history, the pork barrel has served mostly as a way for presidents to corrupt politicians to win their loyalty and get them to support particular political agendas. In the allocation of the pork barrel, corruption is directly tolerated by the higher-ups to secure the support of politicians, especially those who are closer to the local communities whence votes come.

In the late 1940s, for instance, President Manuel Roxas dangled pork barrel funds to congressmen as a way of winning their support for the Bell Trade Act. The Bell Trade Act gave American corporations equal “rights” with Filipino businessmen in exploiting the country’s economic resources, even as the latter had the advantage of greater capital.

It required a 2/3 vote to pass, and there were six representatives from the Left-led Democratic Alliance (DA) who constituted a block on the bill. Roxas also used pork barrel funds to entice other representatives to support the dubious charges of “electoral terrorism” filed against the DA representatives.

The bill managed to be enacted.

During the martial law period (1972-1986), President Ferdinand Marcos gave generous pork barrel allotments to assemblymen to win support for the dictatorship. The current Malacañang occupant, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has been reported at various times to have enticed legislators with the pork barrel to support her administration’s legislative agenda and, in the 2004 canvassing of presidential votes, to secure her a quick proclamation.

Palace spokesperson Ignacio Bunye had denied allegations that Malacañang had hastened the release of the second tranche of pork barrels for 2004 to buy Macapagal-Arroyo an earlier proclamation. Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin was cited in a newspaper report as saying that pork barrel releases were indeed made shortly before the canvassing, although she denied that this was done to get lawmakers to railroad the counting of votes. Bulatlat

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