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Congress targets 2019 budget ratification today

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Senate of the Philippines
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BOTH CHAMBERS of Congress will hold sessions today in a last-minute attempt to ratify the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019 despite lingering questions on perceived irregular fund “insertions.”

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said the bicameral conference committee on the national budget was scheduled to have a final meeting on Friday to sign the committee report on the national budget. Congress will then hold a plenary session in the afternoon just to ratify the report.

“So the whole bicam[eral conference committee] of the House and Senate will meet on Friday morning. They will review (the bicameral committee report), then sign it if they are okay with it and then, by 3 p.m., it will be ratified by both houses in their respective session,” Mr. Sotto told reporters after the Senate caucus on Wednesday night.

The Senate announced on Thursday afternoon, however, that the bicameral committee meeting was moved to 2 p.m. from 9 a.m.

Asked if the Senate will ratify the national budget, the Senate chief replied: “most probably.”

“Maybe some senators may raise questions and issues. But in all probability, because the executive department is requesting it and wants it fast-tracked, it will likely be passed.”

Both chambers of the Congress failed to ratify the 2019 budget before 2018 ended, leading to automatic reenactment of the 2018 budget — meaning no new projects or programs are funded.

The 17th Congress will take a Feb. 9-May 19 break and will have only between May 20 and June 7 to approve any bill afterward. Measures that do not make it out of the legislative mill, via ratification, by then will have to start from scratch in the 18th Congress that begins work in late July.

SAVINGS
House of Representatives Appropriations committee chairman Rep. Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. of Camarines Sur’s 1st district on Wednesday said the chamber was ready to ratify the bicameral committee report on the 2019 national budget, but said it would await the Senate’s counterpart action.

The House on Wednesday also subpoenaed Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno to attend its session today, partly to account for savings of P370 billion in 2017 and a suspected “much bigger amount… in 2018.”

“When he claimed that the P370-billion savings from 2017 reverted to Treasury, does he mean that these unexpended appropriations are still unspent and remain stagnant to this day? Of course not. We do not keep public funds in the Treasury for savings or time deposit. We spend them for programs and projects the following year. Appropriations have a minimum shelf life of two years,” Mr. Andaya said in a statement on Thursday.

“The DBM Secretary has the sole power to disburse them for government programs and projects. This savings-for-pork conversion must be stopped,” added Mr. Andaya, who served as the Budget chief of Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo during her term as President.

The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) on Thursday issued a statement, saying: “[W]e take any subpoena from the House as an opportunity to clarify all the matters not only to the public, but also for the official records of House.

“These accusations are without basis and are meant to discredit the good reputation of this administration’s DBM as one of the most transparent and credible institutions in the world.”

NOT THE LAST SAY
Senator Panfilo M. Lacson, one of the vice-chairpersons of the Senate Finance committee, said committee chairperson Loren B. Legarda during Wednesday’s caucus “merely articulated to the best of her recollection” the agreements she made with Mr. Andaya and what would be included in the bicameral committee report for ratification.

Mr. Lacson also said the final version of budget retained some “insertions” of lawmakers, such as the P160 million allocation per congressman and senators’ additional allocation to the Department of Public Works and Highways and other government agencies.

“The P160 million per House member plus the billion-peso insertions made by a number of their colleagues, and the P23-billion Department of Public Works and Highways insertions by a number of senators plus other insertions in different agencies have all been retained,” Mr. Lacson said in a statement on Thursday.

“Sadly, no matter how hard I argued last night, I only have one vote, although I have good reason to believe that some like-minded colleagues are supportive of deleting all pork insertions, particularly the excessive and unconscionable realignments made not only by our House counterpart, but by a number of our colleagues as well.”

He reiterated calls for President Rodrigo R. Duterte to veto irregular appropriations when the new budget reaches his desk.

“I would say, we have gained some headway in this regard. Hopefully, the President and his economic managers will further scrutinize the final version of the budget bill, as passed by Congress, and exercise his veto power to excise the line items that clearly look and smell like ‘pork’.”

Malacañang’s spokesman said on Thursday that Mr. Duterte is ready to veto provisions if needed.

“… [W]e recognize… the power of Congress to amend, to review and to amend and to do whatever it feels is correct, necessary and right. We leave it to them,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo told reporters in a briefing at the palace.

“Now if the President feels that it’s wrong, then he can use his veto power to correct it.” — Camille A. Aguinaldo, Charmaine A. Tadalan, Karl Angelo N. Vidal and Arjay L. Balinbin