Status quo at House; Alan meets with Paolo
The chairman of the House appropriations committee interpreted Duterte’s statement over the weekend to mean that if lawmakers have concerns, they have all the right to change the leadership if they want.
Krizjohn Rosales, file
Status quo at House; Alan meets with Paolo
Delon Porcalla (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has managed to keep his leadership of the 300-member House of Representatives despite Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte’s announcing his support for a move to declare all House seats vacant.

The session yesterday was presided over by House Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu a partymate of Cayetano in the Nacionalista Party with proceedings taking only about 18 minutes from the time the national anthem started.

“The session is suspended until tomorrow,” the Batangas congressman declared. Abu was seen bumping elbows with fellow House leaders on the floor when he left the podium after banging the gavel.

No manifestations were filed either from the plenary or from the remote digital Zoom app where the 299 House members confirmed their attendance, which could have come from the side of Cayetano or from his presumptive successor, Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Go Yap – a very close ally of Davao City Congressman Duterte – told ANC that the younger Duterte had already met with the Speaker and discussed the complaints raised by Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr.

“As far as I know, they have already talked to each other. And I think they have already settled all the concerns that have been raised by some House members. Even in the same way that should there be other concerns, they will all be addressed,” Yap said.

The chairman of the House appropriations committee interpreted Duterte’s statement over the weekend to mean that if lawmakers have concerns, they have all the right to change the leadership if they want.

“He just doesn’t meddle in the budget. He was just saying that if you are not happy, then you can move to declare all seats vacant. For him, the most important thing is that he doesn’t want to dip his fingers in the budget process,” Yap said, referring to the younger Duterte.

“He never said that he will declare all seats vacant. What he said was that he will ask the Mindanao bloc, especially if they have complaints. Insofar as he is concerned, he has no complaints over the budget allocations,” he added.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the Chief Executive won’t meddle in the leadership issue at the House but made it clear the timely passage of next year’s budget measure is “non-negotiable” as it is needed to revive the pandemic-hit economy.

No reason to meddle

At a press briefing in Cagayan de Oro, Roque said Duterte had brokered the 15-21 speakership deal between Cayetano and Velasco at a time when the chamber was “not yet organized.”

“At first, maybe they (lawmakers) needed direction from the President because the 18th Congress was not yet organized. Now, after a year and a half, the 18th Congress is already organized,” Roque said.

“The President leaves it to the discretion of the individual members of Congress to decide on the issue of leadership...of the House of Representatives,” he added.

“We will respect the decision of the House of Representatives and we hope the cooperation between the House and Malacañang will continue,” the Palace spokesman said.

Roque declined to comment on reports quoting Duterte as saying that he pities Velasco.

“I was informed about the private meeting but not really about the details. I’d like to be informed or request the Appointment Office that for future meetings they could invite me because I understand that the people have the right to know what is happening in these meetings but I cannot answer because I was not there,” he said.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III also said President Duterte is unlikely to intervene in the House row “unless his perspective is sought.”

“If they (congressmen) do not settle their issues, yes the budget might be delayed. But I’d rather not meddle and speculate on what’s happening in their turf,” Sotto told reporters in a text message. “I am told that the real problem is the budget.”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson also warned the leadership dispute could derail the passage of the proposed national budget even as they expressed belief the quarrel was really over pork or possibly discretionary lump sum in the spending bill.

Dispute over funds

In particular, Drilon cited reports that the bickering among congressmen was supposedly over infrastructure funds of legislative districts lodged under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

“Certainly, a power struggle in the House of Representatives will affect our timelines and I hope not because we are still in the middle of a pandemic and we have about 10 percent unemployment,” Drilon said in an interview over ANC.

“The budget provides the spending authority for the government. If there is no spending authority because of the delay in the budget, what would happen is, there will be a re-enacted budget and a re-enacted budget would mean that new programs will not be funded or would have to wait until the budget is passed,” he explained.

“More than any other time in the past, it is critical that the budget be enacted on time. We cannot delay the budget for 2021 because of the condition we are in today,” he stressed.

He emphasized the 2021 national budget seeks to address effects of the pandemic like unemployment and further economic contraction.

Drilon recalled how a power struggle and bickering over infrastructure funds in 2018 delayed the passage of the 2019 national budget for over four months.

Asked whether the bickering over infrastructure funds is connected to the 2022 elections, he said: “I would like to attribute good faith. But you cannot discount that this is part of the preparations for 2022. I have been in Congress long enough to know that if there is anything you should exercise extra vigilance, it is what is called the election year budget.”

He said the P469-billion lump sum allocations in the DPWH budget should be disaggregated in the spirit of transparency.

Lacson said any “ugly squabble in plenary over the distribution of earmarks (in the budget) a.k.a. ‘pork’ is exactly that – ugly.”

“When statesmanship goes out the window, our people’s respect towards the legislature as an institution as well as its individual members somehow dissipates. Any way we look at it, it is sad and lamentable, to say the least,” Lacson said.

He said the Senate will closely scrutinize the proposed budget, particularly the DPWH’s allocation.

He said the total amount representing P135 billion covering 5,913 reappropriated items and P396 billion in lump sum appropriations lodged in the central office of the DPWH may need further clarification.

Lacson said funding for thousands of items in the proposed DPWH budget for projects begun this year but need allocations in 2021 was irregular.

“It is basic that once an infrastructure project has started its implementation, it is already obligated. Hence, there can be no partial cash allocation, unless that project is discontinued, cancelled or terminated,” the senator said.

Saved or realigned

He said the unused portion of the appropriation becomes savings that may be realigned. Or, if the project is covered by Multi Year Contractual Authority (MYCA), formerly known as MYOA or Multi Year Obligational Authority, which is clearly spelled out and provided in the 2020 General Appropriations Act, the same item cannot reappear in the succeeding budget year.

“We were not born yesterday as far as budgeting is concerned.” Lacson said.

Meanwhile, Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas, who sits as vice chairman of the House appropriations committee, said the DPWH should take its cue from President Duterte’s Build Build Build program until 2022 by implementing a policy of massive spending.

“Spend, spend, spend. We cannot afford underspending as usual,” Vargas said.

“The Department of Budget and Management has made it clear that infrastructure spending is critical for the country to rebound from the pandemic. It is important for DPWH to spend, spend, spend its budget to the last centavo,” he said.

One way for DPWH to utilize its budget is to continue allocating funds for projects that were already started in 2019 and 2020. Vargas said priority must be given to projects promoting the safe and efficient movement of people, which is key to economic growth.

“DPWH should also fast-track the construction of roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and evacuation centers. These infrastructure projects are important in ensuring public welfare and safety in the new normal,” the senior administration lawmaker said.

To improve its absorptive capacity, Vargas urged DPWH to hire more employees to focus on key infrastructure projects.

“The bidding process must also be strengthened while ensuring transparency and accountability. Technology must be utilized so the processing of paperwork will become more efficient,” he said.

Vargas said DPWH should also partner with the Technical Education Skills and Development Authority (TESDA) and other educational institutions for skills development as hiring is expected to ramp up with the implementation of various infrastructure projects.

“We must equip our workers with the necessary skills so they can benefit from the ‘Build Build Build’ program,” he said. – Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero

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