Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson on Tuesday continued to pound at the House of Representatives over what he claimed were unconstitutional acts related to the approval of the proposed P4.5-trillion national budget as he called out the lower house’s supposed complicity in allowing the Department of Public Works and Highway (DPWH) to participate in the “authorization phase” of the budget process.
Lacson said the authorization phase is exclusive to the two houses of Congress.
The budget process, the senator said, has four phases: first is the preparation phase which is handled by the Executive branch, then the authorization phase which is handled by Congress, third is the execution phase which is again a function of the Executive branch, and the accountability phase which is the jurisdiction of the Commission on Audit.
Lacson claimed the DPWH infringed on the authorization phase when it made an addendum in its proposed 2021 budget on September 7, or 12 days after the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) submitted the National Expenditure Program (NEP) to Congress on August 25.
He said that under the Constitution, the Executive branch only has 30 days to submit the NEP after the president delivers his annual State of the Nation Address and Congress resumes its regular sessions on the third Monday of July every year.
“Twelve days after the lapse of the 30-day period ay saka pa lang nag-submit ng addendum and we consider it part of the NEP. Hindi na sana puwede tanggapin ang sinubmit ng DPWH na addendum because that’s still part of the NEP. Expired na ‘yan, na-i-submit na ang NEP (Twelve after the lapse of the 30-day period, that was when the DPWH submit its addendum. The addendum submitted by the DPWH should not have been accepted because that’s still part of the NEP. The deadline has lapsed because the NEP was already submitted [to Congress]),” Lacson said.
“They (congressmen) claim that it’s an errata to be submitted by the agencies. But that’s another violation… We cannot allow agencies under the Executive branch to participate in the authorization phase. That is the exclusive domain of the Congress of the Philippines,” Lacson stressed.
He added lawmakers from the lower house should not have passed the budget measure if they were still uncertain of the proposed funding of the various executive offices.
Instead, he said the House could have extended its sessions for another week to tackle all proposed amendments to the budget measure before approving its final version of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB).
The lower house approved the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) last Friday, October 16 during a special session called by President Duterte.
Lacson said the Senate will now have to be content with whatever budget measure the House will transmit to them to ensure the timely approval of the GAB and prevent a reenactment of this year’s annual budget.
Lacson had been chiding House members for allowing a “small group” of lawmakers to still entertain amendments to the 2021 national budget even after it has been approved on the floor on third and final reading.
He insisted the move was illegal, citing the 1987 Constitution which bars the introduction of further amendments to the GAB after it has been approved on third and final reading by the House of Representatives.
“It is not a matter of being acceptable to the senators or not. It’s a matter of the Constitution prohibiting it. Section 26 of the Constitution is very clear: No amendments shall be allowed after the final reading of any bill, not just the GAA (General Appropriations Act), but any measure for that matter,” Lacson told CNN Philippines.
On Monday, the House’s small group convened and accepted P20 billion in institutional amendments and other departmental errata. Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said no individual amendments were accepted by the group.
Included in the P20 billion institutional amendments were P5.5 billion for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, P2 billion for pandemic assistance, P4 billion to aid displaced workers, P2 billion for the acquisition of C-130 planes, P2 billion for the Department of Health’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program for the construction of hospitals, and P2 billion for the Department of the Interior and Local Government mobility of assets for the PNP.
Some P1.7 billion for the Department of Education’s internet needs for online classes, P500 million for energy governance of which P400 million will go to the Philippine national Oil Company for the development of renewable energy and P100 million for the Energy Regulatory Commission to improve and modernize its systems, and P300 million for the DOH’s mental health programs.
Lacson said congressmen can introduce the errata in their approved version of the budget during the bicameral conference committee discussions.
“Regardless of the constitutional infirmities involved, we can remedy it anyway by formalizing those flawed and constitutionally infirm amendments by the House when the Senate approves our own version of the budget measure all the way to the bicameral conference,” he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday night found nothing questionable about the small group’s act, saying he was presuming regularity in the lower house’s actions.
Sotto, in a message to the media, said he sees no problem with the House’s move if it was made clear during the plenary debates that institutional amendments will still be entertained after the approval of the measure.
“… If they manifested to do that before they approved on third reading, subject to style, then that’s possible. It means they approved in principle… As they submit to us, we will of course presume regularity,” Sotto said.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, likewise presumed regularity in the House move.
“We presume regularity given it’s a co-equal House and we know that House leaders know the procedures outline in the Constitution and will comply with such,” Angara said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said any questionable provision in the final version of the GAB can be vetoed by President Duterte when he exercise his power to veto part of or the whole 2021 budget bill.
“Last year the President vetoed a lot of provisions, many of which are line items that were not part of the original bill that was approved by the House on third and final reading,” he said.
Roque also allayed concerns over a supposed delay in the release of funds under the Bayanihan 2 law.
He said the funds will be released soon or before the effectivity of the Bayanihan 2 law lapses on December 19.
“Of course, we would like it (Bayanihan 2 fund) to be released sooner because the P165 (billion) will also act as an economic stimulus,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto has called the delay in the release of the Bayanihan 2 fund as “unfortunate,” lamenting that the setback has had a domino effect in the delivery of assistance to families and businesses that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. – With Jocelyn Montemayor