OPPOSITION of the House of Representatives majority bloc to the P3.757-trillion proposed 2019 national budget caught Malacañang by surprise, at a time a newly installed leadership has just settled down in the chamber and with preparations for the May mid-term elections next year soon under way.
Saying that the Palace was initially “puzzled, shocked and curious” when news of such opposition came out on Thursday last week, Presidential Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a press briefing in Malacañang on Monday that “now… we are alarmed.”
“Maybe we should use a stronger language,” he added, noting that “for the past two years, wala pong problema ang palasyo sa budget… So kauna-unahang pagkakataon ito na ‘yung House po na may supermajority ng administration, eh syang humaharang ng budget. (The Palace has not had any problem with budget approval in Congress in the past two years… so this is the first time that it is the House — where the administration commands a supermajority — that is blocking the budget),” Mr. Roque told reporters.
Eh parang nabaliktad na po. Baka nga hindi na kailangang magkaroon ng minority floor leader dahil minority na ‘yung may power doon sa Kongreso… (It seems the situation has reversed: there may not be any need for a minority floor leader because it seems it is the minority that holds power in the House…),” he added.
“I realize these are harsh words. But these harsh words are intended to give them a message that we are shocked at the resistance of the House because we were confident that when there was a change in leadership we would still be very close allies.”
The 17th Congress’ third regular session opened on July 23 in tumultuous circumstances, as former president Rep. Gloria M. Arroyo of Pampanga’s second district wrested the speakership from Rep. Pantaleon D. Alvarez of Davao del Norte’s first district.
Mr. Duterte’s control of the House has never been that firm, however, as reflected by his acknowledgement in March last year that the first of up to five planned tax reform packages had faced rough sailing in that chamber, which was then under the leadership of Mr. Alvarez.
House Appropriations committee chairman Rep. Karlo Alexei B. Nograles of the first district of Davao City — President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s hometown — announced on Thursday last week that public hearings on the proposed budget would be on hold.
He opposed the shift to a “cash-based” system for the proposed national budget — characterized by allocations for projects that can be auctioned off within a year — from the existing “obligation-based” framework that provides funds for projects that can be auctioned off over a two-year horizon, after noting that the proposal for 2019 is even less than this year’s P3.767-trillion spending plan.
Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno had explained that the “cash-based” system — provided by House Bill No. 7302 which Mr. Nograles and House Majority Leader Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. co-authored with several other lawmakers and which hurdled final reading approval in the House last March — took into consideration the limited spending capacity of implementing departments and agencies that had led to chronic underspending in the past.
Mr. Nograles’ committee has circulated a resolution in the House to recall HB 7302 from the Senate.
Mr. Roque said on Monday that “[t]he ball is in the hands of our allies in Congress.”
At the same time he warned the House that reenactment of the national budget, which would occur automatically on Jan. 1, 2019 should the government fail to enact a new one by yearend, would give Malacañang prerogative to allocate funds — and this during an election year.
“… [W]e are not blinking. We are not scared of a reenacted budget,” Mr. Roque said.
“Congressmen should better ask themselves what will happen to their projects; because under a reenacted budget, it is Malacañang that will determine which budgets will be implemented,” he explained.
“I don’t think they want that.”
Senator Francis N. Pangilinan warned in a press statement on Monday that a reenacted budget would give “the President blanket authority to declare the capital outlay component as ‘savings’.”
“It means literally stuffing the President’s war chest with funds in an election year.”
Mr. Roque told reporters that he had conferred with Mr. Diokno and Finance Sec. Carlos G. Dominguez III on Monday morning “and they were united in saying that we are not daunted by the possibility of a reenacted budget, because that means it is the Executive that would choose which budget will be implemented.”
“In other words, we are not about to give in.”
In a press briefing in the House, Mr. Andaya insisted “there will be no reenacted budget.”
“We are not moving towards a reenacted budget. We’re just taking a detour to understand what this cash budgeting is,” he said, asking that if “underspending has been cured, so why now slash the budget?”
Mr. Nograles insisted in the same House briefing that “the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) can come back to Congress and amend what they submitted” in the form of “errata” to the 2019 budget proposal.
Senators held a caucus on this issue on Monday, resulting in a decision “not to get a position for the Senate whether it should be cash-based or not”, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri told reporters after the caucus that Mr. Diokno will meet today with Mr. Nograles and Senate finance committee chairman Loren B. Legarda in a bid to resolve the impasse. — Arjay L. Balinbin, Charmaine A. Tadalan and Camille A. Aguinaldo