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Congress is populated by donkeys, not pigs

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The pork jokes are getting old. Congressmen caricatured as wild boars and pork fat as bad cholesterol.  Yet, as a taxpayer, I join the ranks of those who continue to be scandalized by breaking news stories of the Napoles scam and the ostentatious display of wealth from the diversion of public funds. As a voter, I am deeply disappointed at Malacañang’s lack of political will to abolish the pork barrel once and for all. One must be living under a rock to still believe that placing special funds into the hands of legislators is a practice that can be rehabilitated by internal reforms.

As a sociologist, however, I am acutely aware that these things are easier said than done. From a systemic view, it is clear that the pork barrel is highly functional in the world of Philippine politics. It is its lifeblood. The Philippines is not a parliamentary democracy. We do not have real political parties. Parties, on our shores, are predatory cliques, built around strong personalities, assembled anew for each electoral cycle. In between elections, the president has no effective way of organizing support among lawmakers for his policy agenda other than commanding their attention by dangling pork funds in front of their noses. In the absence of party processes, releasing (or withholding) the pork barrel is the only way of reigning in what Alfred McCoy calls the “anarchy of families” that rules Philippine Congress.

The pork barrel is, above all, a disciplinary tool, a carrot for donkeys. It also functions to keep those in power in power and to redistribute a trickle of the nation’s wealth to the lower levels. From this view – and putting myself in PNoy’s shoes – I concede that there must first be a functional alternative before we bury the PDAF.

Taking a systemic view goes beyond seeing the bigger picture. It means seeing the bigger picture of the bigger picture. It allows us to see each society as a distinctive constellation of institutional building blocks. Social institutions – the economy, politics, education, religion and families – fulfill a society’s collective needs, and each society is characterized by the relative strength of its various institutions.

In the Philippines, it is the institution of the family that makes our world go round. From the cradle to the grave, the family takes care of us. Educational loan? Ask lolo.  Employment?  Check with tita. Start-up capital?  Butter up papa’s second cousin. Short-cut bureaucratic red tape?  Run to ninang. The Filipino family stands at commanding heights because our kinship ties are the end all and be all of our social life.  The family hovers above all other institutions because of the inadequacy of these institutions to provide for us – think the lack of functioning public health care.  And so it is no wonder that for political dynasties, the family comes before the nation, private interests trump over the common good.

What does this leave us with as enraged citizens?  Functional analysis is great for explaining why practices endure over time; why things have stayed the way they are for so long. But it also has its own built-in secret recipe for change: dysfunctions in the system. We cannot expect change to come from within the political system; we must build up pressure from outside.  In this case, citizen action has a role to play in making the pork barrel dysfunctional.

Blowing off steam online is, no doubt, important in keeping the issue alive. The worst that can happen is for us to become complacent again once the news becomes old. Moral indignation in itself, however, can hardly change the mess we’re in – unless we switch to electing officials through internet polls.  Neither do I believe that the time calls for more radical measures, such as civil disobedience (at least for now).

Public opinion has snowballed over the past two weeks. I do think we are witnessing a historical moment where cynicism is giving way to intolerance. Sobra na. Tama na! This sentiment is what advocates can capitalize on to turn outcry into concrete political action. And certain forms of action by the people can render dysfunctions in the pork barrel.

Two things come to mind: First is if the suki clients of Napoles – the Enriles, Estradas, and Marcoses – are made to suffer sleepless nights over their political future. This can be done through concerted negative campaigns that name and shame these so-called public servants. In an electoral system built around name recall instead of platforms, there is no choice but to be deeply personal and categorical about it.

Second is if rallies are staged (on the streets and elsewhere) behind reforms that strike at the heart of the pork barrel.  In making institutional channels of interest-representation triumph, the system that has produced the donkeys we are stuck with today can be turned inside-out. Reforms must compel political parties to shape up or ship out. The party-list needs to be expanded and instituted as a means of proportional representation beyond sectoral concerns. This can be done even without changing the Constitution. Civil society advocates have been working out the details of such proposals for years. Now is the time for citizen, business, and religious groups to come in. If we let this moment pass, a second chance might not materialize anytime soon.


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