Lawmakers trade barbs over budget impasse, alleged sabotage of gov't programs

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 14 2019 05:42 PM

MANILA - The legislature's impasse on the 2019 national budget has led lawmakers to trade accusations they were sabotaging President Rodrigo Duterte’s programs.

On Wednesday, Sen. Panfilo Lacson recalled to Senate reporters that over dinner Tuesday night, he warned Duterte that the House of Representatives had realigned some P72 billion in Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) funds for his pet Build, Build, Build Program in the 2019 Budget when it itemized lump sums even after the ratification of the bicameral conference committee report on the budget--supposedly the final congressional act before an enrolled bill is sent to the chief executive for signature. 

“Sabi ko, Mr. President, ang masama rito legacy program ninyo ang Build, Build, Build. Dahil nagalaw ang substantial amount of P72 billion, ni-reallocate sa distrito, madiskaril ang Build Build Build. Ano ito? Asset Preservation Program (maintenance of bridges, roads, buildings), Network Program (road network, primary roads), pinag-aralan ng DPWH at presented sa Cabinet and DBCC (Development Budget Coordination Committee) at approved ng Cabinet,” Lacson said.

(I said Mr. President, what's bad here is that Build, Build, Build is your legacy program. Because the substantial amount of P72 billion was touched, reallocated to districts, it might be derailed. What are these? Asset Preservation Program, Network Program, which the DPWH studied and presented to the Cabinet and DBCC and approved by the Cabinet.)

House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro, however, shot back on Thursday, saying it is the Senate that needs to explain why its members realigned some of the funds for the President’s pet projects. 

“The senators also need to explain where they put the P2.5 billion they took from the Greening Project, the P3 billion they removed from TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) scholarship, the P11 billion for the right-of-way projects for the President's Build Build Build program, the P2.5 billion funding for foreign-assisted projects. The Senate removed all those allocations and we don't know where they put them,” Castro said in a statement.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rolando Andaya Jr. said if the Senate gets its way, huge and unfair allocations made to favored congressional districts by the previous House Speaker will be restored. 

“If the senators will remain steadfast in defending the lump-sum funds, this practice will remain and only the favored districts will get their share of the taxpayers' money. While we aim for an equitable distribution among districts, the Senate obviously wants to restore a budget that is unfair and lopsided,” said Andaya, a former budget secretary.

Andaya added that lump sums in the budget are barred by the Supreme Court.

Castro said it’s actually the Senate that has failed to act on Duterte’s priority programs, among them charter change. The administration has been pushing for amendments to the Constitution as part of its push for a shift to a federal form of government.

“I’d like to remind our people that the Senate has so far also failed to act on other priority legislation that forms part of the President’s agenda. These include continuing the process of Charter Change towards federalism, passing the second tranche of tax reform or TRAIN 2, the traffic emergency bill and creating a new Department of Disaster Management, among others,” said Castro.

Before adjourning for the campaign season, the House approved Resolution of Both Houses No. 15 to propose a new charter to replace the 1987 Constitution. 

Opposition lawmaker Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate believes that the ongoing impasse which Duterte failed to end Tuesday night clues him in that the President really prefers a reenacted budget, which would allow him to realign funds he can use to make favored candidates win in the May midterm elections.

“Lahat ng kapangyarihan nasa pangulo para sabihin niya sa Senado at sa HoR na 'Ito ang gusto ko. Ayaw ko ng mga insertions. Ayaw ko ng mga illegal, tanggalin ninyo ‘yan at ang i-submit ninyo sa akin ay makatotohanang budget para sa interes ng mamamayan,'” said Zarate in an ambush interview.

(The President has all the power to tell the Senate and the House that 'This is what I want. I don't want insertions. I don't want anything illegal, remove that and submit to me a realistic budget that is for the interest of the people.')

House leaders came all out and turned the tables on Lacson after the senator said his long-time political nemesis, former President and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, can now be charged by anyone before the Office of the Ombudsman for signing an enrolled bill of the 2019 budget containing itemizations of lump sums done after the ratification of the bicameral conference committee report on the 2019 budget.

Lacson told reporters Wednesday: “Since SGMA (Arroyo) already signed the HOR version of the enrolled bill, she’s already prone to being charged for falsification because she’s already certified something that did not take place. Certify mo ito, approved sa plenaryo. Pareho ng ni-ratify naming bicam report sa Senate (Certify this, approved at plenary. Both ratified in our bicam report at the Senate),” he said.

Andaya maintained there was nothing illegal and reiterated that the Senate did the same. Andaya added the Senate’s itemizations came much later than that of the House.

”As agreed during the bicam, the House itemized the lump-sum funds after it was ratified in the plenary. Our last day for itemization: March 3. The Senate did the same and sent their "realignments" to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee beginning February 11, three days after it was ratified in the plenary. The last day that the Senate wrapped up the realignments: March 7. Nauna pang natapos ang House of Representatives((The House finished first). Still, nothing unconstitutional, illegal or irregular,” he said.

House Deputy Speaker Prospero Pichay said Arroyo can’t be singled out since she was authorized by the entire chamber. 

“Senator Lacson, because of his anger towards the Speaker, may have forgotten that the House of Representatives, just like the Senate, is a collegial body. Any act of the Speaker especially in the signing of bills and other forms of legislation is an act of the House of Representatives as a whole. If she is liable, then majority of the members are equally liable because we authorized her to do it. Why is Senator Lacson singling her out?” he said.

For House Senior Deputy Minority Leader Anthony Bravo, Lacson could not have better knowledge than resident experts who worked on the budget in the House. 

"May I remind Senators (Vicente) Sotto and Lacson, the House leaders who steered the approval of the 2019 GAA (General Appropriations Act) are mostly lawyers and accountants. These are all experts in all phases of the budget process-- from budget preparation, authorization, execution, up to budget accountability," said Bravo. 

For Castro, it all goes back to Lacson’s history with Arroyo. 

“It seems that Senator Ping Lacson is holding President Duterte and the entire Filipino people hostage to his continuing animosity towards our Speaker. He has obviously convinced the Senate leadership to do his bidding. It seems with their maneuverings they want President to fail.”

It’s a charge Lacson has repeatedly denied.