However, the current scandal shows how discretionary funds are a crucial mechanism for controlling the two-chamber Congress in a country where party loyalties are weak.
HARD TO CUT THE PORK
After initially resisting calls for “pork barrel” reform, Aquino announced in August that he would abolish for next year the PDAF of 70 million pesos for each lower-house member and 200 million pesos for each senator, a total of 25.2 billion pesos.
The funds are meant for local development projects, such as schools, health centers and road construction, as well as for the distribution of medicine and fertilizer.
The abolition of the fund could severely inhibit Aquino’s ability to push through reforms, such as a planned increase in mining taxes seen as crucial to attract investment into the moribund sector. It could also delay implementation of a complex peace deal to end a long-running Muslim rebellion in the resource-rich south.
“The executive needs the pork as badly as the legislature because the executive needs laws to be passed; he needs elbow room to convince these legislators,” former Philippine treasurer Leonor Briones said.
Filipinos were shocked by media accounts of the opulent lifestyle of the woman who is suspected of running a massive kickback scheme for lawmakers.
Janet Lim Napoles, the wife of a former Marine major, has been accused by the Philippine Department of Justice of setting up fake non-government organizations that since 2007 received lawmakers’ pork barrel funds and then routed the money back to them.
The whistleblower, a former associate of Napoles, testified to the Senate in a public hearing that the businesswoman received so much cash she would stash it in the bathtub of her luxury Manila home.
Napoles was arrested and charged with plunder in September, along with 30 others including three senators and five former congress members.
Before her arrest, Napoles denied involvement in the scheme and said her wealth came from her family’s investments in coal mining in Indonesia.
The accusations that Aquino himself used public funds to buy off senators has forced him on the defensive and distracted him from his economic agenda. Last week, he reorganized his communications staff and reduced the exposure of two spokespersons who had struggled to deal with the media.
The scandal has also sharpened questions over how much Aquino has achieved since he took power in 2010. Despite investigating hundreds of tax evasion and smuggling cases, his government has yet to win a single conviction.
Critics say Aquino has failed to support reform measures to reduce the influence of money politics, such as the pending anti-graft Freedom of Information Act. They also say his efforts have targeted political foes far more than allies.
“This perception endangers what gains he has made in the past three years and curbs the potential for any sustained gains in the long-term fight against corruption,” said Mars Buan, senior analyst at Pacific Strategies and Assessments in Manila.