Hostage
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2019 - 12:00am

The national budget, it seems, has been held hostage by incomprehensible bickering between senators and congressmen. If this continues it will inflict great harm on our economic performance – and eventually on the welfare of the Filipino people.

Right now, with very few days of legislative work left, there is a real possibility that we will have to resort to a reenacted budget. We have seen in the past how reenacted budgets wreak havoc on the national economy. 

NEDA estimates that if we are forced to work with last year’s budget, GDP growth could be cut by as much as 2 percent. This is vital.

Most bank analysts are forecasting a 6.5 percent GDP growth this year. Our economic managers are holding on to 7 percent as a fighting target. Should the national budget be withheld, our growth could fall to 5 percent – breaking the momentum of our economic expansion that saw consistent growth of over 6 percent for 15 consecutive quarters.

There will be disappointment all around, especially among the global investment community and our international development partners who worked hard to muster support for us to carry out an expansionary economic strategy. Once again, they will say our political institutions are too immature to manage rapid growth.

A reenacted budget will stall the “Build, Build, Build” program that is a key counter-cyclical instrument to overcome predictions of slower global growth this year.  It will delay pay increases for our public school teachers. It will throw the entire economic program awry.

It is the duty of Congress to pass the national budget. Sometimes, however, that duty is overshadowed by other, mainly mundane, considerations.

Our politicians, as we know, are never the most reliable cadres of national development. They are often blinded by greed or by political vendettas.

Pork

No one has been more consistent at impugning the proposed budget than Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

Late last year, Lacson created waves by asserting that House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her closest allies set aside the largest district allocations for themselves. The record eventually produced demonstrates this to be a false claim. Arroyo ranked 100th in allocations, with many backbenchers and even opposition congressmen awarded larger shares. Lacson never apologized for the fake claim.

The past week, Lacson asserted the congressmen inserted items in the budget way after the bicameral committee agreed on the final budget bill. This, too, is a false claim.

House appropriations committee chair Rolando Andaya issued a clear statement demonstrating that his committee merely itemized what the bicameral committee approved as lump sums. Itemization provides greater transparency to the allocations and prevents what jurisprudence has defined as “pork.”

To the contrary, says Andaya, it was the Senate contingent that realigned lump sums amounting to P75 billion during the bicameral committee meetings. Of this total, P25 billion is “parked” at the DPWH as additional funding for pet projects the senators might identify. Unlike the House, it is the Senate that failed to itemize the realigned fund. It is this that qualifies as pork.

Perhaps Lacson, who so frequently cries “Wolf!,” might do better by looking at his own lair.

Lacson’s showboating has driven many congressmen to exasperation. Coop-Natco party-list Congressman Anthony Bravo has accused the vociferous senator of “holding hostage” the 2019 national budget. He is doing this, adds Bravo, as part of Lacson’s “personal vendetta” against Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Lacson claims he is waging a crusade against pork. But it seems this is a crusade with tight political blinders. He has said nothing about the lump sums the senators have set aside for their own enjoyment.

It is a wonder that Senate President Tito Sotto allows all the showboating from members of his chamber to continue unbridled. All that showboating is putting the nation’s economic wellbeing at risk.

Veto

It was reported that President Duterte has summoned leaders of the House and the Senate to a meeting Tuesday night about the budget impasse.  No report about the results of that meeting has been issued as of this writing.

Perhaps a meeting like this one, with the President “moderating”, is not even necessary.

Earlier, Rep. Andaya made what seems to be a sensible proposal to end the standoff between the two chambers of Congress.

All the lump sums produced by both the Senate and House panels in the course of the bicameral committee meeting amount to only about 2 percent of the budget bill. There is no sense delaying the 98 percent of the budget our economy needs direly.

Andaya proposes that both chambers sign the budget bill and submit it to President Duterte to sign. The President may then decide which parts are transparent and which are opaque, which are constitutional and which are not. Then the President may exercise his line item vote to take out the stuff that looks unmistakably like pork.

The House of Representatives already signed the budget bill. It is the Senate that is holding back for some reason. That reason could be a failure in legislative statesmanship.

Through this whole messy episode, marred by wild charges on each side regarding who was cornering pork, Senate President Sotto has maintained a bizarre silence. This has led to a lot of speculation about the actual power configuration in the Upper Chamber. It has also invited observations that the Senate President is so intimidated by his colleagues.

Passing the budget promptly and properly is the cardinal duty of the Congress. If either chamber cannot perform that duty, a failure in leadership must be declared.

GDP GROWTH NATIONAL BUDGET
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