Reenacted budget looms due to House power struggle

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    SENATORS yesterday said they foresee a reenacted national budget for next year due to the leadership wrangling at the House of Representatives, which has delayed its final approval of the proposed 2021 national budget of P4.5 trillion.

    The House suspended floor debates on the proposed budgets of agencies and approved the proposed 2021 National Expenditures Program (NEP) on second reading on Tuesday. After the approval, the leadership suspended all sessions until November 16, when the approval of the money measure is expected to be done on third and final reading.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the House leadership squabble has placed the Senate in a “very, very tight” schedule to pass the budget measure before the years ends.

    The power wrangling, which Sotto noted caused the delay in the final approval of the measure by the lower house, has adversely affected the Senate’s timetable to pass the legislation.

    Sotto said he talked with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday night, who told him that small committees of around 15 congressmen have been formed to accept individual amendments from other congressmen until Nov. 5 and that the House intends to pass the measure on third and final reading on Nov. 16 when Congress resumes sessions.

    Sotto said that if the scheduled approval happens on Nov. 16, it will still take another week or until Nov. 23 for the House to finish with the printing of the final House version of the measure and transmit it to the Senate.

    Once they get their copy of the House’s version of the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB), senators will need at least one week to run through their copies and study the measure.

    Sotto said senators usually take two weeks of marathon hearings to finish floor deliberations on the proposed national budget, which usually ends by the first week of December.

    A weeklong discussion on proposed amendments to the Senate version of the money measure can be expected by the second week of December.

    With Congress scheduled to adjourn for the Holiday season on Dec. 16, Sotto said lawmakers would go on break without the bicameral conference committee convening to reconcile the differences in the two versions.

    Session resumes on January 18 the following year, which means that the government will run on a reenacted budget at least for one week to one month, Sotto said.

    If the House had followed the legislative calendar and suspended its session on October 14, Sotto said there will be no problem in passing the proposed budget on time.

    “We are staring at a reenacted budget. My disappointment is the time table, it is very, very tight, that’s the problem that I see. This is not a problem that is confined to me alone but also to the senators, the chairs of committees, especially the Senate committee on finance and those who will interpellate. You cannot blame us if we have a reenacted budget. I say this is too tight,” Sotto said.

    He said that during his talk with Cayetano, he warned him of the consequences of having a reenacted budget since next year’s budget was crafted as a recovery budget to finance measures to help the country pull through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “There are priorities for 2021 – health, Build Build Build, digital infrastructure because of distance learning, agriculture and food, and other new normal priorities. The 2021 budget will support our recovery in the pandemic. That’s why we need to finish the budget measure on time so that the Executive department can act. That’s the point,” he added.

    He said the only “win-win” solution he sees so that the GAB can be passed on time is if the

    House will just adopt the Senate version of the budget bill when they convene the bicameral conference committee.

    For his part, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the Senate lost at least one month of material time due to the early suspension of sessions at the House.

    He said the situation got even worse when Cayetano said that small committees will continue to accept individual amendments until Nov. 5.

    “It’s good as a seeing a reenacted budget for next year. There’s no way that the proposed budget can be approved before the year ends… The last day of submission of amendments is Nov. 5 and if we compute the number of days for the budget to be passed, it is already impossible to pass it before the year ends,” Lacson told a virtual press conference.

    Lacson said he was surprised why individual amendments will still be entertained until Nov.

    5 by the small committees created by the House leadership when under the rules of Congress, no amendments should be made after a measure is already approved on second reading.

    “As per the rules of Congress, no more amendments can be entertained after the second reading of a proposed measure. All of the amendments must be made before the approval on second reading. That’s why there is a three-day rule before the third and final reading so that they can print copies of the bill that was read on second reading and so lawmakers can have time to review and have an idea on how they will vote on the third reading,” Lacson said.

    Lacson said he is still hoping that the House will read the bill on third and final reading at the soonest time so the measure can be transmitted to the Senate next week before both houses officially suspend sessions as scheduled on Oct. 14.

    Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, Senate finance committee chair, said the President may call for a special session during their Holiday break just to make sure that the proposed budget is passed before the year ends.

    He said another move that Congress can do is move the resumption of session earlier than Nov. 16.

    According to the legislative calendar, Congress is scheduled to suspend, not adjourn, sessions on October 17 to Nov. 15. Congress will then resume sessions on Nov. 16 and will last until Dec. 18. By Dec. 19, Congress will adjourn for the Christmas break.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Malacañang remains hopeful that the proposed 2021 national budget would be approved on time despite the House power intramurals.

    Roque said the one month suspension of sessions in the House of Representatives is not likely going to delay the passage of the measure, which he noted has already been approved on second reading.

    Roque said the Senate can proceed with its own budget deliberations while waiting for the passage of the proposed appropriations bill at the House. He pointed out that the Constitution only states that the budget law must originate from the House but did not say that it should be passed before the Senate can start its own deliberations.

    Roque said it would not be the first time for the Senate to start its budget deliberations even before the House completed its version of the budget.

    “This practice is nothing new, as this has been done in previous years to avoid unduly crunching budget deliberations in the Senate. Moreover… the Constitution does not prohibit the Senate from acting on a proposed legislative measure in anticipation of its receipt of the bill from the House,” he said.

    “You see, for all intents and purposes, the budget has been approved in the House eh, because on third and final reading, you can no longer move for amendments eh. That’s already the final version of the House bill. It’s either you vote for or against the measure,” he added. – With Jocelyn Montemayor