|The Taste of Pork: Congressional Funds for Development|
MicSem Monthly Discussion Topic #23
On April 26, 2000, the Micronesian Seminar held a discussion on FSM Congress appropriations, commonly called “pork barrel,” attended by 35 people. An opening presentation was given by John Haglelgam, who saw the controversial topic from both sides during his years in government service. Besides serving as the second president of FSM, John was also a congressman for eight years. He is now teaching at the College of Micronesia, FSM.
What is Pork Barrel? The dictionary defines it as a government appropriation, bill, or policy that supplies funds for local improvements designed to ingratiate legislators with their constituents. The term was invented in the US in the early 20th century, but the reality it describes was by no means a monopoly of the US. The smell and taste of pork are found nearly everywhere, including FSM where Congressional appropriations for “special projects” have been especially controversial in recent years as US funding has declined.
History of Pork Barrel Legislation
Our presenter traced the origins of pork barrel to later Trust Territory years following the creation of the Congress of Micronesia. At that time the executive branch controlled the US appropriations that funded all government operations, while Congress was allowed to expend only money raised in local revenues. Under this dual system of finances, Congress had the luxury of spending the money as it pleased since all essential services were provided through the executive branch. Because there were no political parties nor any political ideology to guide debates on the expenditure of public funds, Congress turned to the people to decide how revenues should be spent. In appropriating money to the people, of course, Congressmen established a strong support base for themselves.
The FSM Congress continued the practice of appropriating money for people in the villages and more remote areas. As the states took over major operational and infrastructural programs in the government, the FSM Congress found itself in the same position as the old Congress of Micronesia. It could let other entities assume the main burden of running the government, while it spent on less essential programs in the same way that the old congress used to. There was no consolidation of public funds. This is true today and probably will continue as long as there is a demand for this public money, and as long as the appropriations continue to benefit congressmen.
This creates what might be called a clientelistic system, in which the voter is the client and the politician is the patron. Pork Barrel rewards and reinforces the loyalties of the constituents to their representatives. By way of example, proposals to change the revenue sharing system in such a way as to give a greater share to the state has been voted down again and again in popular referendums. This can serve as an illustration of how people were siding strongly with their national congressmen over and against their state representatives.
How Much Pork and What Does It Buy?
In the last five years from 1996 to the present, Congress has appropriated $37 million to public projects, an average at $7.5 million dollars a year. The figure has swung between $6 million and $10 million a year out of an annual FSM budget of about $150 million. Hence, pork barrel represents about 5% of the total national budget.
What does pork buy? A wide variety of projects, it seems. The earliest projects in late Trust Territory days were sea walls for communities that put money into the hands of those who worked on the projects even if many of the sea walls soon crumbled. Some of the more recent projects benefit the whole community, as in the case of schools, dispensaries, and road paving. In other places, however, their main benefit is to individuals or families, as when pork is used to purchase vehicles or family meeting houses. One person with long experience in government commented that in states with a high degree of political unity money tends to go to communal projects, whereas places without such political unity tend to get money for individuals and families. Options to fund teacher training, student scholarships, dispensaries, schools, or services to outer islands were ignored in favor of direct grants to families.
Tension between the National Government and the States
Pork barrel appropriations may create a bond between the national government and grassroots people, but they seem to exacerbate the tension between the state and national governments. At present, three of the States are engaged in a law suit with the FSM National Government over the allocation of fishing license fees that account for nearly $20 million in annual revenue. In their desperation to find funds to continue essential government services as US aid declines, the states contend that fishing fees should be shared with them rather than left in the hands of the national government. This issue may never have come to court had it not been for the FSM Congress appropriation of $10 million towards local projects at the very time that the states were facing serious cutbacks in their own funding.
States resent pork barrel because their own priorities are swept aside in favor of direct appropriation for what they regard as less valuable projects. In Pohnpei, for instance, the long-range program for paving the main road is neglected while work is done on paving secondary roads in the various election districts. On the other hand, villages and more remote islands often complain that the states focus exclusively on the centers rather than on outlying populations. People in these places often see the national congress as supporting them, even if it means leaving the states to fend for themselves.
An unintended effect of all this is that it firmly bonds the little people with their national government, thus allowing the country to avert the periodic crises that threaten to rip apart the unity. State officials may rant and fume, but threats to secede remain hollow as long as the national government enjoys the loyalty of its population and has money to spend on them.
The tension between FSM and the states can be and has been overcome in some instances. In states in which there is good cooperation between the state and national government, congressional appropriations may even be used to support state priorities. Yap’s congressional delegation, for instance, once decided to use all of its share of special project money to supplement the state money for the repair of the Yap State Airport. Even in Chuuk, where there is not the same history of close cooperation between different levels of government, municipalities have decided to forgo their own share of infrastructure funds to assist the state in completing their own airport renovation.
The Power of Congress
FSM Congress, already very powerful from the start, has probably become more so because of pork barrel appropriations. The FSM president is chosen by the congress from among its members, giving the legislative branch a measure of control over the executive with consequences that could not be foreseen when the constitution was created. Moreover, congress’s use of appropriations to deepen the loyalties of its constituents seems to have been effective. Very few incumbents have been defeated since the creation of the FSM Congress, as one person pointed out. Under such conditions, the FSM Congress can easily become an exclusive club offering permanent membership.
What checks and balances do we have on the power of FSM Congress? The state legislatures, operating much closer to the grassroots level, are not able to avoid the close scrutiny of voters. For one thing, legislative sessions are broadcast directly to people in their own language. When the Pohnpei State Legislature, a few years ago, voted to increase the expense allowance of its members from $5,000 to $10,000, there was immediate public outcry. In the elections that followed, many of the majority voting for the increase were tossed out of the legislature and the leadership was entirely changed. Would such a thing have happened in the FSM Congress? In point of fact, FSM Congress had already increased their own expense allowance, one person noted. The bill passed unnoticed, except by the local legislatures which attempted to do the same thing. A congressman himself once commented that people intensely follow what happens at the state level, but seem generally uniformed about decisions of the national congress. Channels of communication from congress to citizens seem to be poorer than ever. Proceedings are no longer published, and there is no national or state newspapers to keep people informed.
The charge is sometimes made that congress not only appropriates funds but controls the disbursement of funds once they are allocated. This would make members of congress the beneficiaries of their own allotments. Although the Attorney General once ruled that congressional representatives cannot serve as formal allottees, congressmen may control the money in other, covert ways. They have sometimes created organizations to administer the funds, as seems to be the case with the regional development authorities in Chuuk. In such ways, congressmen can exercise control over the administration of the funds.
When Is a Gift Unhelpful?
Special development projects can be more than a gesture of concern for people who might otherwise be forgotten. They can also be effective means of helping these people achieve a standard of life that they might not otherwise enjoy.
Yet, even good projects, those aimed at enhancing community development in one form or another, can have bad side effects. The dispensaries, school buildings, municipal offices and other projects funded by congress today usually come free of charge. The danger here is that these gifts might simply perpetuate the old Trust Territory mentality: people are obliged to do nothing but sit and wait until the government provides all their community services at no cost to the people themselves. In most development projects funded by foreign aid, there is a requirement that the community provide matching funds. Even in Trust Territory days, most of the early grant-in-aid programs ran according to the same principle. The community had to provide labor and/or a certain part of the cost of materials to qualify for funds.
Lack of community input all too often results in the refusal of the community to take ownership of a project. One person said that in some communities when the generator or boat or freezer that they have been given by congress breaks, the people wait for the government to come back and fix it. They take no responsibility for making the repairs themselves. Another participant likened this attitude to the mentality that was adopted in some church communities after years of being cared for by foreign priests. In their diligent care for their people, the pastors raised all the money for schools and churches, put up buildings, and assumed responsibility for maintenance and upkeep. As a consequence, the community never acquired a sense of ownership of their church.
Time and again well-intentioned parties have been repeating this mistake. The Trust Territory government succumbed at times, as did some of the churches, especially the Catholic parishes run by foreign priests. The congress may risk repeating the same mistake in supporting community projects without demanding any measure of community involvement. Before committing funds to any project, congress would do well to ask whether it promotes true community development or perpetuates dependence.
Other Problems with Pork
The problems with well-meaning projects go beyond lack of community ownership. Congressmen have often appropriated funds to build dispensaries and schools in villages without first consulting state health or education officials. After the money is allotted to build these facilities, state officials may complain that they do not have the funds for their upkeep and operation. At other times, congressmen have appropriated money for drugs and pharmaceuticals, but with the stipulation that these drugs only be used for their constituents. This can lead to the problem of unequal distribution of drugs, with more needy places sometimes having to do without medicines that are readily available for certain other places.
At their worst, pork barrel appropriations are sometimes no better than scarcely veiled gifts to individual families. In one instance, funds were appropriated to construct a communal well which was supposed to bring water via some 50 PVC pipes to different faucets throughout the community. The final product was a well with an old garden hose running to a single house. Another project, designed to support a bakery, consisted of a $50,000 kitchen being added to a personal residence. There are endless stories of community meeting halls built on private land owned by a family. Even if the head of the family has a title in the community, the meeting house will remain firmly in the hands of his family, on whose land it is built. One former congressmen equated the gift of fiberglass boats and engines to individual families with the road paving that was done with public money in other places. His own constituents travel by water, he explained, so he saw himself as providing the equivalent help for them that his colleagues offered their people through road paving. One participant noted that the kind of projects targeted at individual families by providing cars, boats, and exotic trips, seem to be getting more common these days, while more community-oriented projects seem to be on their way out.
Overall, however, pork barrel projects generally seem to be an attempt to respond to the felt needs of the people. The problem is often with the unintended effects of the development program, as when it creates an attitude of dependence that is debilitating rather than empowering. The results are even worse when such projects lead to a concern for the welfare of an individual over and against the welfare of the community. At the very least pork barrel projects should bind communities, not cripple them. But worst of all is when these projects and the way they are managed teach people to dissemble and cheat.
Problems related to the implementation of these projects beg for a solution. Even if money is appropriated for a worthwhile project, there is no guarantee that the project will be completed as promised. There is also very little accountability of funds earmarked for such projects, as government attempts to audit the projects have shown again and again. One audit report revealed that a project had $100,000 that could not be accounted and so it suggested that this be written off as a “forgivable debt.”
What Should Be Done?
The view of pork barrel taken by the presenter and most of the participants was far from entirely negative. Its contributions have been real, both in terms of its effects on outlying communities and in maintaining a crucial political balance between the power of states and the national government in FSM’s federalist system. Yet, the problems long associated with pork barrel are real and should be addressed, most agreed.
A note of dissent was voiced by one American in the audience who thought that, in a representative government, people ought to use their money as they choose. If government officials are misusing funds, they will be voted out of office, he argued. In response, someone made the point that a representative government presumes an informed population. Can the FSM population, which doesn’t seem to follow congressional proceedings closely and has no public newspaper, really be called “informed?”
Many people seemed to feel that the time has come to make some changes in the way appropriations are made. While community development projects should be funded in some cases, they should be such as to benefit communities rather than individuals. They should also be better regulated to insure that the funds appropriated for a project are spent in the way in which they were intended.
If some reforms are demanded, it may be unrealistic to wait for the people to issue the summons for such reforms. At present it seems to be the members of congress rather than the people who are taking the lead. A few years ago one congressman actually asked for an independent evaluation of his projects to assure his followers and critics that the money appropriated was being honestly spent. Unfortunately, however, such an evaluation could not be completed because the funds were simply untraceable, given the poor paper trail. Another congressman explained that he was actively trying to wean people away from their dependence on pork barrel projects because he felt the time had come for them to begin providing for themselves.
Pork barrel legislation is like the weather, our main presenter observed; it is often discussed but no one seems serious about changing it. This may have been true in the past, but shrinking US aid and declining funds seems to be forcing the issue in FSM.