Budget
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - October 6, 2020 - 12:00am

Nothing on the legislative table at this moment is more important than acting on the 2021 national budget.

The reasons for that are fairly obvious. We need the spending allocations to beef up our health system in this continuing fight against the pandemic. We need the spending allocations intended to stimulate domestic economic activity to pull us out of this recession.

Should Congress fail to enact next year’s budget in a timely manner, many more Filipinos will succumb to this disease. Many more will fall into poverty.

We saw the year before what happens if the national budget is not passed on time. In late 2018, senators and congressmen squabbled over accusations of pork barrel insertions in the proposed 2019 budget. The budget was not passed at yearend as is supposed to happen.

In the first semester of 2019, with the budget delayed, public spending collapsed. Our economy growth rate tumbled. The strong momentum we were building in the two preceding years dissipated.

With an enacted budget, we missed creating the hundreds of thousands of jobs through public spending. Poverty incidence could have been pushed down even more than the remarkable 16.5 percent posted at the end of the year.

Only a determined “catch-up” spending plan for the second half of 2019 laid down by the economic managers saved the year from being lost. Even then, we could not make 6 percent growth for that year compared to the most optimistic targets of about 7 percent.

It turns out, given the pandemic that devastates any prospect for economic expansion in 2020, the year that was only half-functional because of the politically inflicted budget delay turned out to be our last good year – perhaps for a decade.

It took us about a decade to recover from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Our enterprises suffered from the sharp depreciation of the peso. Many firms went under.

Compared to the effects of this year’s pandemic, the 1997 crisis was nothing more than a passing case of sniffles. Today, the entire global economy is contracting. Governments everywhere are scurrying about trying to revive their economies. None of us could draw up firm plans because it is the virus that dictates timelines.

We do not have full grasp yet of the possible second-generation effects of this unprecedented global contraction. We do not know yet the full effect this event will have on the international financial system. Some major bankruptcies could still happen. The feared second wave of infections might still happen. Everything is on edge.

Should our legislators fail in their duty to enact next year’s national expenditure plan in a timely manner, this will be an act of great betrayal.

Intramurals

When President Duterte convened the rival factions contending for speakership of the House of Representatives, he had the timely passage of the 2021 national budget foremost in mind. That process is now threatened by the factional maneuverings between the camps of Alan Peter Cayetano and Lord Allan Velasco.

When the 15-21 term-sharing agreement was forged, presumably with Duterte’s blessings, this Black Swan event of a global pandemic was unforeseen. What was specifically unforeseen was the fact that the scheduled application of the term-sharing agreement happens right smack in the middle of the complex budget passage process.

The strangest thing about this meeting is that the attendees seemed to have understood radically different versions of it. This is like the case of the blind men trying to describe an elephant on the basis of which part of it they touched.

Moments after the meeting concluded, Velasco partisans were hitting social media with the announcement that their man will assume the speakership post on Oct. 14. Those from the Cayetano camp, on the other hand, recall no such agreement. What they do recall is a thought that crossed the President’s mind that perhaps the term-sharing agreement could be postponed a bit to December, after the chamber is done with its work on the national budget.

In the days after that Palace caucus, probably signaling the President’s disappointment, his spokesperson announced that the matter of term sharing was entirely the business of the congressmen. That is as it should be, in principle if not always in practice.

On Oct. 1, Cayetano delivered on the floor his offer to resign the post immediately. About 184 congressmen voted to reject the offer of resignation. Only one endorsed it.

This was, to be sure, a stark show of force. Cayetano clearly demonstrated he had the numbers. Most of those who voted to reject the resignation offer consider this the decisive exercise. It sets aside the term-sharing agreement in an overwhelming way. The House now proceeds with its urgent business with Cayetano at the helm.

The Palace as well seems to think this was the decisive vote. There are no more efforts at mediating forthcoming. In a democratic chamber, the confidence of the majority in Cayetano’s leadership has been expressed convincingly. Cayetano’s grip on the post is further reinforced by the unprecedented approval ratings he received in the latest Pulse Asia survey.

But Velasco seems to think the intramurals are still ongoing. He insists Cayetano relinquish his post on Oct. 14 on the basis of a term sharing arrangement that now appears to have been rendered moot by the lopsided vote rejecting the offer to resign.

Other than that moot agreement, it is not clear what other basis there is for Velasco’s insistent claims. He has no exemplary legislative record. He could not demonstrate the numbers in his favor. He could invoke no heavenly mandate.

NATIONAL BUDGET
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