‘Department of Congress’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - September 27, 2019 - 12:00am

Buhay party list Rep. Lito Atienza was being facetious when he called out his fellow lawmakers at the House of Representatives as members of the “Department of Congress” of President Rodrigo Duterte. Atienza unburdened his frustration to us during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay a week after the 18th Congress completed the approval of the proposed 2020 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on second and third reading all in one day.

This was after President Duterte certified the proposed budget measure under House Bill 4228 as urgent administration bill. Thus, any bill approved on second reading – when certified urgent by the President – will not go through the required waiting time of printing for the approval of the same bill, as amended, on third reading.

But as far as Atienza is concerned, for a budget bill that is contained in three volumes of books should be an exemption to this rule. This is precisely because lawmakers must pass upon carefully while scrutinizing the annual budget bill as part of the check-and-balance between the Executive Branch and the Legislature.  

During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday, Atienza’s tirades against the 18th Congress were actually taking to task his House colleagues for virtual surrender of their power of the purse in the fast-tracked approval of the proposed 2020 GAB. The House-approved 2020 GAB is currently still being printed.

Out of the 301 members of the House of Representatives, 257 voted to approve the proposed 2020 GAB on third and final reading. Atienza, along with five House minority bloc members, were outvoted by the pro-administration House majority headed by former Duterte Cabinet member now Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

“We might as well create a Department of Congress,” Atienza quipped.

“Because we in Congress are acting as one anyway with the Executive Branch,” Atienza rued.

 The House majority bloc is largely composed of the ruling party of President Duterte’s PDP-Laban. Living up to his maverick stand as a lawmaker, Atienza is listed as an “independent,” or not belonging to majority bloc neither with the minority group in the present Congress.

Now on his third and last term, Atienza was expressing in strongest terms his extreme disappointment by which the 18th Congress hastily approved last Sept. 20 the proposed P4.3-trillion budget bill for next year.

The 2020 budget bill is the first of the two budget bills that would be handled under Cayetano’s leadership at the Lower House under the Speakership term-sharing pact he forged with Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco. Listed as House Bill 4228, it was billed as the quickest budget bill ever passed.

President Duterte submitted the 2020 GAB last Aug. 20. The Lower House started deliberations two days later. It took just over a week of individual committee hearings for all government agencies to defend their respective budgets for next year. Plenary debates followed and completed after two weeks. The voting took place three days after President Duterte certified as urgent the 2020 GAB last Sept. 17.

As agreed by the respective leaderships of the Senate and the House, the 2020 GAB should be passed into law before both chambers adjourn for their Christmas break this year. Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Cayetano vowed to President Duterte that there won’t be a repeat of re-enacted 2018 General Appropriations Act (GAA).

The budget impasse during the previous 17th Congress stalled the passage into law of the 2019 GAA. It was only on April 15 this year when President Duterte was able to sign the 2019 GAA, or almost four months late. Economic managers of President Duterte blamed the delayed approval of the 2019 GAA for the slowdown of the country’s economic growth during the first semester of the year. This was largely due to less government spending as a major component of consumption in the measurement of the country’s gross domestic product for the period in review.

Based on agreed timetable of both chambers, the printed House-approved 2020 GAB will be transmitted to the Senate by Oct. 1. Nonetheless, the Senate already began its own committee hearings on the respective budget proposals of each government agencies. Once the final print of the House-approved 2020 GAB is submitted to the Senate, it is the only time they can start their own plenary debate on it.   

From their jointly approved calendar, the 18th Congress is set to go on recess on Oct. 4, their first adjournment this year. The first regular sessions will resume on Nov. 4. The Senate finance committee chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara has asked his fellow Senators to use their one-month recess to prepare their respective budget committee reports. So when they get back to work, the 2020 GAB will be ready for sponsorship at the floor for plenary deliberations.

Well, Atienza is not alone in his disgust over the manner by which the House majority bloc virtually rammed through the 2020 GAB. Even before the Senate could get their hands on the House-approved 2020 GAB, Sen. Panfilo Lacson claimed that certain Congressmen have complained to him on the purported “re-alignments,” P1.5 billion of which were re-allocated reportedly to each of the 22 House deputy speakers. Naturally, Cayetano and the 22 deputy speakers referred to vehemently belied it.

When we asked about Lacson’s allegations during our conversation at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Atienza admitted there is no way by which he could validate such. Because of the haste by which the 2020 GAB deliberations were shortcut at the Lower House, Atienza bewailed, he along with other responsible members of the House, were not given a chance to do their own scrutiny.

While it sounded funny, Atienza’s wisecrack of creating a “Department of Congress” could literally become a reality at the rate the Duterte administration is re-inventing the Philippine bureaucracy. As of last count, do you know there are at least five other proposed legislations that seek to create five new departments in the Executive Branch? But that’s another story altogether.

NATIONAL BUDGET
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