The 3rd chamber

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The country has a Senate and a House of Representatives. And then there’s the third and most powerful chamber of Congress, the bicameral conference.

This is according to former senator Panfilo Lacson, who also noted that deliberations of the bicameral conference committee are open to the public, except those on the annual national budget.

The bicam’s task is to reconcile the House and Senate’s conflicting versions of a proposed piece of legislation. But in practice, the task is left mostly to the heads of the finance committees of the two chambers, Lacson said. The result is then presented to the bicam members for their signatures, which can be provided electronically.

This can be likened to a blind spot in the budget process, outside the scrutiny of the media, the general public and even bicam members who may have no interest in poring over the draft General Appropriations Act, which typically consists of hundreds of pages. The fine print of the GAA overflows with numbers, which can give the math-challenged nosebleed.

Blind spots are magnets for unusual, anomalous or downright criminal activities.

Lacson, who unlike some lawmakers reads the fine print before affixing his signature to the budget measure, describes the bicameral conference as “the third chamber of Congress” where budgeting “miracles” happen.

It’s also the “most powerful chamber, actually, because sa bicam, maraming milagro ang nangyayari,” Lacson told “Storycon” last Tuesday on Cignal TV’s One News.

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The House, according to Sen. Imee Marcos, inserted P60 billion into the 2024 national budget during the bicameral conference, with P10 billion of the amount sourced from government pensions, including those for military and other uniformed personnel.

MUP, whose grumblings about proposed pension cuts contributed to the replacement of Benjamin Diokno as finance chief and head of the economic team, are surely going to be unhappy about that story.

Marcos said other insertions in the 2024 budget were hidden in P450 billion unprogrammed appropriations, which were also not in the NEP.

“What happened was this: while we’re carefully examining purchases and receipts, a robbery was going on at the back, at the bodega,” she said.

Marcos is pursuing a probe of P26.7 billion inserted during the bicam by the House contingent for the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Ayuda para sa Kapos ang Kita Program. The DSWD has said it did not craft AKAP or seek funding for what is supposedly aid for the “near-poor,” and the item is not in the 2024 national expenditure program (NEP) submitted by the executive to Congress.

House members have pointed to Senator Marcos’ signature in the bicam report, but she said it was an electronic signature and AKAP was not properly discussed at the bicam.

She said as a result of the budget insertions, nearly 16 percent of items or expenses in the GAA signed by President Marcos were not in the NEP he submitted to Congress, with “large amounts removed from public works and foreign-assisted projects.”

Ping Lacson, who advocated against budgeting anomalies when he was senator, told Storycon that while AKAP may be an “irregular” insertion, there’s no law prohibiting insertions during the bicam.

After the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the pork barrel – a system that allowed lawmakers to earmark pet projects for funding with lump sum appropriations after the passage of the GAA – Lacson said lawmakers “improvised” ways to continue exercising personal discretion over the utilization of billions in public funds, without describing it as pork barrel.

So the situation got worse, Lacson said: “Napasama pa.”

*      *      *

These days, instead of limiting lawmakers to pork barrel allocations of P200 million per senator and P70 million per congressmen, they simply tinker with the NEP itself, Lacson lamented. He explained that agency heads are summoned by lawmakers while the NEP is being crafted, and told to include in the agency’s proposed budget the lawmakers’ pet projects.

Under close scrutiny, such congressional budgeting improvisations are just like lipstick on a pig, Lacson said: “Maski make-up-an mo yung baboy, lagyan mo ng lipstick yung baboy, baboy pa rin yon. Lalabas at lalabas pa rin yung itsura non.”

Apart from the major steps in national budgeting – preparation, authorization, execution and accountability – Lacson said the process involves many other steps, such as budget calls, citizen engagement, consultations with local and then regional development councils before submission of funding proposals to the Cabinet-level Development Budget Coordination Committee.

The House hit back at President Marcos’ elder sister, saying Senator Imee’s realignment of P13 billion in the DSWD’s 2023 budget deprived about 900,000 “poorest of the poor” beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps.

Cash for the 4Ps instead went to the AICS, or Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations, according to a party-list congressman.

Both the 4Ps and AICS are DSWD-supervised cash handouts for social amelioration. The difference is that the 4Ps is a conditional cash transfer that beneficiaries withdraw from ATMs and banks.

AICS, on the other hand, is the institutionalized “KBL” – kasal, binyag, libing – public funds that can be handed out in person by politicians (Imee Marcos and her ally Vice President Sara Duterte have done this) to assist their constituents in expenses for weddings, baptisms, funerals as well as food, transportation, education and other needs.

Last Wednesday, Marcos explained that she realigned only P8 billion from the 4Ps to “quickly implementable” social amelioration projects such as AICS because of poor utilization of the 4Ps budget. Another P5 billion for the 4Ps was realigned by the bicameral conference committee, she said.

One thing is clear: all politicians want to use people’s money for their own purposes, among others to dole out tax-funded ayuda while taking personal credit for the help.

What can taxpayers say except a pox on all your houses.

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