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Aquino III’s power of the purse and patronage politics

The decision of the Supreme Court (SC) on Nov. 19 declaring as unconstitutional the pork barrel system singularly reaffirmed the public clamor for its abolition. It is, however, a premature conjecture made by some sectors that the high court ruling spelled the end of political patronage. It does not. The high court ruling may have removed lump sum and unauditable discretionary funds for legislators but the enactment of yearly national budgets remains open to political compromises between the president, Congress, and other vested interest groups.

The SC ruled the controversial multi-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – a major source of pork barrel for legislators – as well as the allocation of Malampaya funds for non-energy projects and the presidential special fund (PSC) as unconstitutional. It also directed the prosecution of public officials and private individuals for criminal offenses related to the illegal use of the controversial funds. The SC ruling was issued in response to petitions for the PDAF abolition and in the wake of the launching of a people’s initiative seeking to end the pork barrel system.

Although it is commendable, the high court ruling was released too late the day or several years after billions of taxpayers' money had been plundered by legislators in cahoots with government agencies, LGUs, and criminal syndicates in the guise of "PDAF." It is as well a symbolic indictment against all sitting presidents, including the incumbent one who, in their motive to make Congress a mere rubber stamp and weaken the check and balance system and separation of powers, have supported the pork barrel system and used it to extract political concessions from Congress thus making patronage politics as resilient as ever.

The SC ruling, however, should not lull us into thinking that the pork barrel system and all forms of corruption and plunder by politicians and the powers that be are over. Certainly, the wielders and beneficiaries of patronage politics and corruption remain in power at the national and local levels, hence, greed will always find insidious ways. The culture of impunity that sustains corruption - in the government, legislature, LGUs, military, business and other sectors - is a generational problem whose solution should not stop with the SC ruling.

The SC ruling not only left the chief executive more powerful with his power over the purse now more centralized. Patronage politics exercised by the president is even stronger – any legislator who wants a piece of the budget in the guise of a project for his own district should now bow before him. A rubber stamp – that is how Congress has played its role.

In the end, the partial resolution of the systemic issue of pork barrel should be attributed to the profound expression of outrage by the taxpayers themselves acting as one to bring decency, integrity, and morality in government. The power of the people has been exercised once more. It's good that the high magistrates listened.