OVP budget escapes scrutiny after House panel swiftly ends deliberations

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
OVP budget escapes scrutiny after House panel swiftly ends deliberations
Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio gives the keynote address during the "Tribute to soldiers" awards ceremony at The Manila Hotel, Rizal Park, Ermita in Manila on Aug. 28, 2023
Inday Sara Duterte / Facebook

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2: 2:10 p.m.)— Lawmakers did not get the chance to ask Vice President Sara Duterte about the budget of the Office of the Vice President after the House appropriations panel ended the budget briefing early — in just 15 minutes.

Citing "parliamentary courtesy" and tradition, Senior Deputy Majority Leader Sandro Marcos made a motion to terminate the deliberations for the OVP's proposed 2024 budget. At least 21 House appropriations panel members voted in favor of the motion. Sandro is the president's son and the nephew of House Speaker Martin Romualdez.

Unlike other agencies, the OVP had merely presented a ten-minute audio-visual presentation on its accomplishments and priorities for the proposed 2024 budget, after which the committee had moved to end the deliberations.

According to House rules, the approval of the motion to terminate means that the panel will endorse the proposed budget to the plenary for another round of deliberations, but this will no longer include an interpellation with the actual officials of the agency.

The three Makabayan bloc lawmakers attempted to object to Marcos' manifestation, but the House appropriations panel did not move to count the "no" votes and had suspended the hearing without allowing them to deliver a manifestation.

Rep. France Castro (ACT Teachers) raised a point of order following the termination of the hearing, saying that she had yet to explain her "no" vote. "Hindi natin inaasahan yung ganitong procedure," she said. 

A House appropriations committee member said that the hearing has ended and requested for Castro to submit her manifestation in writing instead.

When Castro continued speaking and explained that the OVP needed to explain how it spent the P125 million in confidential funds it received in 2022, her mic was abruptly cut off.

Rep. Raoul Manuel (Kabataan Partylist) later pointed out during the DepEd's budget briefing that the tradition of passing some agencies' budgets without scrutiny should cease as it prevents lawmakers from performing their duties.

"Our tradition of extending parliamentary courtesy stops us in the legislative branch to do our job for which we are paid by the Filipino people. Dapat po may checks and balances tayo," Manuel said.

"I do not want Congress to be complicit to illegal fund use by agencies in the executive branch," he added.

Manuel said that he also "condemns" the proceedings during the OVP budget briefing as it does not show "democracy at work."

Budget deliberations for the OVP were also swiftly terminated in 2022 without any questions or contentions.

At a press conference following the OVP budget hearing, Castro said that Duterte appeared unprepared to explain how the OVP used up the P125 million in confidential funds. 

"She needs to explain this. It's not a secret. I believe the members of the appropriations committee in Congress became lenient," Castro said in Filipino.

"This P125 million is a huge sum for classrooms. Around 50 classrooms can be constructed with P125 million, and this P125 million (in confidential funds) for the OVP in 2022 is big compared to other agencies related to national security. So we are really dismayed," she added.

Fellow Makabayan bloc lawmaker Manuel similarly expressed dismay over the missed opportunity for Duterte to answer budget-related questions, while Rep. Arlene Brosas (Gabriela Women's Party) said that Duterte needed to show "transparency" and "accountability."

In a statement after the hearing, Duterte said that there was "nothing irregular or unauthorized" about the confidential funds acquired by the OVP in 2022, which did not go through general appropriations as required by law. She also accused Makabayan bloc lawmakers of going on an unwarranted "rabid vilification" of the OVP.

This development comes after Duterte challenged Castro last week to prove her allegations against the OVP that the P125 million confidential funds it acquired in 2022 were illegal or unauthorized. 

Duterte last week said that Castro's accusations against the OVP "will all be answered once the probe is done and during the budget hearing."

In the same statement, Duterte said she refused to respond to Castro "because she did not come to class prepared - like a good teacher."

Robredo's OVP budget

During the term of former Vice President Leni Robredo, the OVP's budget was also approved in minutes due to the lower chamber's tradition of not raising questions with respect to the top officials of the executive branch, according to a 2017 report from the Philippine News Agency. 

Robredo's OVP budget, however, is significantly lower than Duterte's.

 Besides not having confidential and intelligence funds, the OVP under Robredo only received P700 million in her last year in office.  

This jumped to around P2 million in 2023 — the first full year Duterte served as vice president. — with reports by Franco Luna

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