Is budget reform possible?
By Bobby M. Tuazon

With public confidence in government waning, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the unconstitutionality of the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) and DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) make it all the more compelling for the budget system to be reformed.

Aimed at allocating public goods and services, the budget system has been subverted systematically to legitimize under various pretexts the appropriation of taxpayer money for politicians and private accomplices. The pork barrel and other perks and privileges were justified as necessary to secure legislative cooperation for the President’s priority bills. In the end, such disbursements led to the amassing of not only personal wealth but also money for election kitties. The power of the purse makes a powerful President and a rubber-stamp Congress.

Amid the public uproar, the high court declared the PDAF and DAP unconstitutional. But transactional politics did not die with its rulings.

The system of kickbacks under pork barrel will be restored in “recommended” projects for implementation by the organic line agencies of the executive branch. The architecture of corruption in these agencies including the budget and other departments, bidding and procurement agencies, local government units, and private contractors and even constitutional bodies is well-entrenched, making appropriations still vulnerable to plunder.

Too, the high court’s rulings did not end “supplementary pork barrel” and “gifts” from corporations and other influential pressure groups lobbying for specific bills. Still in the hands of the President are such funds as the Malampaya Fund (P131 billion), social fund, special purpose fund, and the like.

To retain the seat of power in the 2016 elections, the President and his anointed successor must secure the electoral support of the ruling coalition through funds, perks and privileges. Many reelectionists need the pork barrel to retain their voting turf through “pet projects” including vote- or software-buying in the automated system.

With budget decisions shared mainly by Congress and the President, how can these be insulated from fraud so that the trillions of pesos earmarked every year are spent well?

To begin with, the pork barrel scam exposes the misuse not just of funds but also of power. Checks and balances remain on paper while transparency and accountability are trivialized by the power of transactional politics involving the President and many lawmakers. Accountability is undermined by selective justice and selective rule of law, as in the current controversy where the President’s cronies are being cleared. Sadly, says the London-based International Budget Partnership in a recent study of 125 countries, the Philippines lacks budget transparency.

Now, since governing under the present dispensation cannot be entrusted solely to the powers-that-be, citizens’ advocacy groups can challenge the administration and lawmakers to follow the constitutional doctrine of “government-civil society partnership” by adopting participatory budgeting. This needs no legislation. With external budget scrutiny limited to experts and watchdog groups who remain toothless against the manipulative powers of politicians, what can compensate for this weak governance is when people exercise their right to have a say in the budget. Under participatory budgeting, people’s representatives are engaged in the budget policy cycle from information access, prioritizing and drafting, deliberations, to approval, implementation tracking, verification, and auditing. Constitutionally enshrined but largely ignored by government, citizens’ engagement in public affairs such as budget and fiscal policy should be adopted at all levels from the national to the barangay.

In Brazil, India, New Zealand and other countries, participatory budgeting where the people define priorities with binding effects has improved public services.

Governance advocates may view participatory budgeting as enhancing “government-civil society partnership.” Seen from a democratic perspective, however, it will help empower the people to protect their rights and interests critically, constructively, even confrontatively, while enhancing their capability to transform government and make it more responsive to their interests.

Without participatory budgeting, citizens’ initiatives from impeachment to the public enactment of laws—now unfolding as a last recourse—will be for naught. And the nonresolution of national issues that have stirred public indignation will be more divisive, resulting in a US-style government shutdown, or a taxpayer revolt.

A government shutdown is possible if key political figures are locked in endless bargaining on the allocation of pork-driven projects, or when the general appropriations proposal is clearly hostile to public interest, compelling the civil society movement to derail its enactment by paralyzing mass protests.

In the United States, government services have been crippled a number of times.  In October 2013, President Barack Obama and the Republicans were in an acrimonious showdown over healthcare and other controversies, forcing several public services to close for weeks.

But the democratization of the budget system is not enough to achieve breakthroughs in the struggle against corruption and patronage politics. Parallel citizens’ actions should still be done, such as the enactment of the decades-old freedom of information bill and the dismantling of political dynasties, among other vital public interest measures.

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