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Palace: Congress may restore CHR budget

“Just to put things in perspective, the reduction is only at the earlier stages of our budget process,” Communications Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan said. Screenshot from Palace press briefing, File

MANILA, Philippines — It’s early days yet.

Amid the furor over the P1,000 budget granted by the House of Representatives to the Commission on Human Rights, Malacañang said yesterday the CHR might still get Congress approval for a funding allocation of over P600 million for next year.

“Just to put things in perspective, the reduction is only at the earlier stages of our budget process,” Communications Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan said.

He emphasized that the Office of the President and the Department of Budget and Management have proposed a CHR budget of more than P600 million to Congress.

President Duterte and his allies have been assailing the CHR for criticizing the administration’s vicious war on drugs. They insisted the CHR – chaired by Chito Gascon – has not been doing its job, as its investigations don’t cover common crimes or those committed by terror groups.

Under the Constitution, CHR’s mandate only covers abuses by state forces against ordinary citizens.

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Ablan also assuaged concerns over CHR’s getting only P1,000 budget, saying the House’s decision was just “an exercise of the check and balance power” of the legislative branch.

Explaining the budget process, Ablan said a budget program originates from the House of Representatives and is deliberated at the Senate before a final version is consolidated during a bicameral conference.

“So we still have a long way to go. In fact, since the version of the Senate and the House may not always be the same, there will still be bicameral conference committee,” he said.

“And the reduction of the budget of the CHR to P1,000 – we don’t speak for Congress but as a lawyer and a student of public policy – as I mentioned earlier, is an exercise of the legislative branch of its checks and balances,” Ablan said.

He also chided the “uninformed,” reminding them there are only few times that the legislative can actually check on other branches, specifically the executive – and one such occasion is during investigations in aid of legislation.

“That’s how they can pursue their check and balance power. The other is to actually review the budget. The House of Representatives has the power of the purse. It originates from them and the PCOO, actually like any other government agency, has to appear before congressmen,” he said.

PCOO stands for Presidential Communications Operations Office, where Ablan is an assistant secretary.

“And this is the only opportunity for Congress really to hold us accountable, you know they asked us, ‘What did you do for the past year? This is what happened’,” he said.

“It will still go to the Senate and you’ve already heard comments from our senators that they will restore the budget of the CHR. It’s a totally legislative matter that the Palace will respect. As far as we know, we submitted a budget for CHR,” he added.

At the House, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said yesterday senators “are dreaming” if they think they can fully restore CHR’s budget.

He stressed he is open to giving the agency a funding bigger than the P1,000 “but we will discuss how much we can give them based on their programs, but they are not doing their job.”

Restored

As senators have promised, the chamber’s sub-committees have restored the budgets of the CHR, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon had warned that reducing the budgets of the three agencies would be tantamount to abolishing them as they could not function with only P1,000.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he expects the issue to come to a head at the bicameral conference committee deliberations to resolve the disagreeing provisions of the proposed P3.7-trillion national budget for 2018.

He stressed senators are not “imposing on our House counterparts” but would “listen to their arguments for slashing the budgets of the three agencies, with the CHR being the most contentious.”

“We expect that our contingent will also be listened to in the most civil and rational manner and act like statesmen in this regard,” Lacson said.

The bicameral conference committee, sometimes dubbed as the “third chamber of Congress,” is the body composed of representatives from the Senate and the House formed whenever the two chambers need to reconcile conflicting provisions they have respectively passed.

Senators explained the proposed national budget is approved as a whole or Congress cannot pass it with some provisions left hanging. So if both chambers would not be able to resolve the deadlock before the end of year, the government would be operating on a so-called “reenacted budget.”

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said both chambers should strive to break the looming impasse “by understanding the rationale” as to why the appropriations were originally proposed for the CHR, ERC and NCIP.

“I’m sure there is light at the end of the tunnel and both Houses will come up with a compromise at the bicam level,” Sen. Sonny Angara said.

Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, however, said before his colleagues worry about the possible deadlock, those supporting the restoration of the budgets should make sure they would be supported in the Senate plenary.

Aquino apparently suspects that some senators are in favor of the House move allocating P1,000 budgets to the CHR, ERC and NCIP. –  With Jess Diaz

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