SENATE minority leader Franklin Drilon yesterday urged President Duterte to call another special session of Congress from November 9 to 13, this time to give the Senate more time for floor debates on the proposed P4.5-trillion national budget.
Drilon proposed the holding of a special session “in order to guarantee the passage of the proposed 2021 General Appropriations Act on time.”
President Duterte has called Congress into a special session from October 13 to 16 so the House of Representatives can resume floor discussions on Malacañang’s proposed 2021 National Expenditure Program (NEP).
The President’s call was prompted by the House leadership’s decision on October 6 to prematurely suspend their session until November 16 after they approved the money measure.
Both houses of Congress are scheduled to adjourn on October 17 and will resume sessions on November 16.
Senators have threatened that the House decision to suspend their session earlier than scheduled under the congressional legislative calendar would delay the approval of the proposed money measure and could lead to the reenactment of the current national budget for a few months, putting into disarray the administration’s strategic programs to address the health, economic and social impacts of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
“We will debate on the budget from November 9 to 13. We can finish it within five to seven days and allot two weeks for the bicam. Congress can send to Malacañang the 2021 GAB (General Appropriations Bill) by the first week of December so that the President can sign it before January 1, 2021,” Drilon said in an interview with radio dzBB.
Section 15, Article VI of the Constitution allows the President to call for a special session at any time.
Drilon said the holding of a special session is a “safety net” in case there will be delays in the bicameral conference committee where House and Senate representatives reconcile the disagreeing provisions in their respective versions of the proposed national budget.
Drilon said he does not expect the bicameral discussions to be smooth-sailing given the huge lump-sum appropriations in the budget. He also said the Senate will question other controversial items such as the P19-billion in anti-insurgency funds, the lack of a special amelioration program, and the insufficient funding for the Department of Health, among others.
Drilon said having a new national budget every year is very important so that the government can freely move to fund new projects, especially now that the government is in the middle of its fight against COVID-19.
“We cannot afford to have a re-enacted budget. I have been looking at the national budget for 20 years now and I know the bad effects of having a re-enacted budget especially now that we have a pandemic,” Drilon said.
Drilon said a delayed approval of the budget will also affect the country’s recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of passing the 2021 national budget on time. Just look at these alarming figures: 7.6 million families are hungry, 7.3 million lost jobs last April and 4.6 million in July, and 5.5 million of our countrymen can be pushed into poverty next without sufficient economic relief from the government…We are facing a full-year economic contraction of 6.9 percent as projected by the World Bank,” he said, adding that the forecasts of the World Bank as well as most other financial institutions were beyond the government’s projection of a 4.5-6.6 percent full-year contraction.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson was more optimistic and confident that the proposed 2021 national budget will be transmitted to the Office of the President by December 19.
In a separate interview with dzBB, Lacson said the special session called by the President should give congressmen enough time to pass the budget measure on third and final reading.
He said even if the House spends a day to resolve the leadership issue now hounding it, the HOR will still have time to pass the bill on third and final on or before Oct. 16.
“We are almost sure that the General Appropriations Bill will be passed on third reading by Friday, October 16. So that’s almost definite unless the ‘unknowns’ will happen,” Lacson said.
He added: “If we can pass the Senate version on the first week of December, maybe up to December 5, that will give the bicameral conference committee until December 19. So in our original budget calendar, the enrolled budget bill will reach Malacañang on Dec. 19.”
The House last week suspended the session until November 16, a week earlier than its scheduled adjournment of October 16, after it approved the Speaker’s motion to pass the budget on second reading.
It’s not yet clear if the House will simply resume session since it is not yet technically adjourned and a special session is only called for by the President when both chambers of Congress are on recess.
Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Michael Defensor could not say yet how the House leadership will go about tackling the budget since the committee and individual amendments are pending with the small committee that was tasked to review proposals.
Even if the House votes to approve the budget on third reading, Defensor said the amendments will still have to be discussed so the House can decide which ones will be accepted and rejected.
Deputy speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte said he does not think that the measure will be reverted to second reading because it will only further delay the passage of the budget which was only submitted to the House last August instead of June or July like in previous years.
ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House committee on appropriations, said he would meet with the Speaker today to discuss how they will go about the special session.
“We’ll have a meeting with the Speaker to discuss if we’ll continue with second reading, repeating it or will go straight to third reading,” he said in a television interview. “That’s what we’ll have to decide tomorrow (Monday) and I’m just waiting for Speaker Cayetano’s guidance.”
Yap said the four-day special session is more than enough to approve the budget, especially now that it was certified as urgent by the President which allows the House to approve the budget bill on second and on third and final reading on the same day.
Cebu City 2nd District Rep. Rodrigo Abellanosa alleged Cayetano showed his “autocratic style of management” when he and his handful of allies unilaterally terminated the budget deliberations, approved the spending plan on second reading despite pending issues, and suspended the plenary session until Nov. 16.
“While Speaker Cayetano and his close allies are wallowing in tens of billions of Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) allocations for their districts, the two districts of Cebu City, which contributed substantially to the national coffers, are afforded only a measly fraction of a billion each. This is a big insult and affront to the people of Cebu City,” Abellanosa said.
“Some lawmakers were asking about the huge budget allocated to Speaker Cayetano and his close allies, but instead of answering, the Speaker decided to railroad the budget, compose a group of his friends to amend it, and suspend session to have an early break and to hold on to power,” he added.
For his part, 1-PACMAN Party-list Rep. Eric Pineda said a great majority of House members are unhappy with how Cayetano and his allies conducted the budget deliberations resulting to its abrupt passage. He also pointed the irregular manner how the proposed 2021 national budget was approved without completing the deliberations for all government agencies.
“It was irregular to pass the budget without it being heard completely. Even the Speaker stated in his speech that we cannot pass the budget as proposed. However, because of the latter’s unilateral actions and with the help of his close allies, the other members of Congress have been robbed of the chance to scrutinize the proposed national budget,” Pineda said.
Pineda also noted that while legislators have asked that they be allowed to personally attend the plenary session, the House leadership limited the attendees to only 25 people of their own choosing.
He also cited the actions of the House leadership on Sept. 30 when Cayetano offered to resign, but the same was supposedly rejected by 184 members. “No official list of the voting results was released, which casts doubt on the actual numbers,” Pineda said.
Meanwhile, in a late after televised message, presidential spokesman Harry Roque reiterated for the nth time that while Malacañang will not meddle in the affairs of the House of Representatives, the President wants lawmakers to set aside politics and prioritize the passage of the proposed 2021 national budget.
“The call of President Duterte is for the congressmen to set aside politics and pass the proposed 2021 budget, to pass the 2021 anti-Covid 19 budget. The President expects the (approval of the budget during the) special session of Congress on October 13 to 16,” he said.
Likewise, the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) urged lawmakers to put to the backburner their personal political interests and think of country and the public good first.
“Your duty as public servants demands no less and anything short is an extreme disservice to our people,” said Francis Lim, president of MAP.
MAP expressed concern over a probable repeat of the impasse between the Senate and the House that attended the 2019 budget and which caused the re-enactment of the 2018 budget, causing massive damage to the economy. – With Wendell Vigilia, Jocelyn Montemayor and Irma Isip