MANILA (UPDATED) — The Philippine government's proposed budget for 2021 that is crucial in the country's salvation after the devastating impact of the pandemic has become a victim in the escalating power struggle in the House of Representatives, some lawmakers said Tuesday.
In an unprecedented move, incumbent House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday terminated the debates on the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) that consequently suspended sessions until middle of November.
The congressmen approved only on second reading the P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget upon Cayetano's motion.
To his credit, Cayetano was candid enough to admit that he did it to prove a point.
"I will prove to Cong. Velasco and his cohorts today that I'm not hostaging the budget. Applying Sec. 55 of our rules, I move to terminate the period of debate of HB 7727, GAB," Cayetano said, referring to Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, with whom he has a term-sharing agreement for the chamber's top post.
Observers said this was Cayetano's move to prevent any attempts to unseat him on October 14, the date set for the supposed change in leadership.
And the latest House drama between the two feuding lawmakers have more reverberating consequences, according to some lawmakers who rejected the move.
"The abrupt termination of the plenary deliberations on the 2021 GAB and the premature approval on second reading of the GAB... are unprecedented in the history of the House of Representatives," Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said in a statement.
The lower chamber takes the spotlight annually during budget deliberations as it holds exclusively the "power of the purse."
But this role has been "sacrificed to the altar of the on-going House leadership squabble," Lagman noted.
"The proposed budgets of 14 major departments, including their attached agencies, have not been deliberated and/or completed," Lagman said.
Lagman said among those are offices that play key roles in pandemic response and recovery.
"We slam these moves to strip the Filipino people of their chance to scrutinize the proposed 2021 national budget and to sacrifice Congress' power of the purse—just for the sake of the first in line in the Malacañang-brokered Speakership deal to stay in power," Kabataan partylist Rep. Sarah Elago said.
"This comes at a time when public funds must be very well-allocated to reflect the need to effectively address the health and economic crises," she said.
With the suspension of the session until Nov. 16, amendments for the proposed budget will only be entertained in a small committee created by Cayetano and headed by his allies.
"Sinagasaan at nasakripisyo ang pagbusisi sa budget ng mga naiiwan pang mga ahensya," Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said.
BUHAY party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said Cayetano's move held hostage "the whole country with what he wants to do with the budget."
Atienza, who was heard via Zoom objecting to Cayetano's motion, did not mince words against the Speaker.
Cayetano's "loser" move, he said, illustrated his desperation to cling to the House's top post.
"This is typical of a poor loser – Pag natatalo ka na, guluhin mo na lang ang mesa, sunugin mo na lang ang bahay, 'ika nga," Atienza said in a statement.
On ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo, Atienza said it is a basic rule that the House of Representatives and Senate adjourn at the same time, noting the bicameral nature of the country's lawmaking body. Based on the legislative calendar of the 18th Congress, the two chambers are not supposed to go on break until Oct. 17.
"Kung ako masusunod ha, mag-session kami sa Oct. 14, with or without him... Pwede yun. That is the time to show the numbers," Atienza said.
Zarate reminded the public that the squabble began when President Rodrigo Duterte brokered the term-sharing deal, only to leave the matter to the lawmakers when tensions ran high.
"Ang awayang ito sa kapangyarihan at rekurso ay nag-ugat sa unprecedented public endorsement ni Pres. Duterte sa so-called term-sharing agreement sa Speakership post - isang pagpapatutuo na kontrolado nga ng Malacañang ang Kongreso," Zarate said.
Meanwhile, Velasco said Cayetano's "maneuvering" of House rules was his "desperate" attempt to hold on to Speakership since he was already losing clout in the House of Representatives.
"The foregoing acts manifest Speaker Cayetano’s extreme desire to hold on and hang on to power in clear defiance of President Duterte’s desire for the passage of fair and equitable budget that serves nothing but the interests of the Filipino people," Velasco said, adding the Speaker has "bastardized the institution" along the way.
"Speaker Cayetano, your time is up," he added.
Allies of Velasco last week threatened to unseat Cayetano should he refuse to relinquish his post by October 14.
In a Facebook live after the session, Cayetano said there will be no delay in the budget approval because it was in fact approved on 2nd reading ahead of schedule.
The approval, though, on final reading will have to wait until next month, he said, projecting that by Nov. 16, the Senate will already receive the version approved on final reading.
"Huwag po kayong mag-alala, hindi po made-delay ang budget. Ipapadala po namin ito kaagad. In fact, if the Senate wants to work with us during the break, para less contentious na yung bicam, we're more than happy to work with you already during the break," Cayetano said.
"I've talked already to several senators, and they agree with me that although 1 day po is also substantial, it is still not a reason na hindi po mapasa," he added.
The Philippines' economic growth in 2019 was stunted by the delay in the passage of the proposed budget for that year. Some programs and projects of the administration were put on hold.
Then Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said in January this year that the country's 5.9 percent GDP in 2019 was the slowest in 8 years and was slightly below the low-end of the 6.0-6.5 percent revised target of the government for the year.
The country has gone into recession this year, the first time in nearly three decades, after the pandemic pulled the GDP in the 2nd quarter to -16.5 percent growth as millions of Filipinos also lost jobs.
First quarter GDP also contracted for the first time since 1998 to -0.7 percent due to the impact of COVID-19 and resulting lockdowns.
—With a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News