By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Whether or not the P3.757-trillion government expenditure program for 2019 would be enacted is now in the hands of the House of Representatives, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said on Wednesday.
Sotto issued the call after their meeting with President Duterte and House leaders in Malacanang Tuesday night, in a futile attempt to end the stalemate over the proposed national budget.
No consensus has been reached between the two Congress chambers as both stood firm on their respective positions on the spending bill.
Duterte, according to Sotto, sided with Senator Panfilo Lacson’s proposition for the House to withdraw their enrolled copy of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) and stick to its ratified version.
“I was talking to members of the House din, the [appropriations] committee nila, sabi ko, ‘Bakit isusubo ako at isusubo ninyo ang Speaker ninyo, pipirmahan na iva-violate namin ang Revised Penal Code at saka Constitution?’ Siguradong may magdedemanda sa amin niyan in the future…Why will I sign it if I cannot certify that the bill is correct?” the Senate chief narrated in a radio interview as he reiterated not to sign the GAB that contained the Lower Chamber’s post-bicameral itemizations.
(I was talking to members of the House also, their appropriations committee, and I told them, ‘Why would you get me, and your Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in trouble by making us sign it and violate the Revised Penal Code and the Constitution?’ For sure someone would sue us in the future. Why will I sign it if I cannot certify that the bill is correct?)
“Nasa kanila ngayon kung ‘yong pinag-usapan kagabi ay kanilang susundin (It depends on them if they will comply with what we agreed upon last night),” he said.
“We just have to wait and see what they will do if they will really, babawiin nila (withdraw it), at papadala sila sa amin ng bagong (and send us a new) enrolled bill.”
But House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro said the Lower Chamber did not agree with the Senate’s proposal, maintaining that the bicam-approved budget bill contained lump sum appropriations.
The Senate’s Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO) confirmed finding post-ratification realignments by the House in the copy of the GAB it sent to the Senate last Monday, Sotto said.
He said this was discussed during the meeting with the President, who acted as mediator between the two Congress chambers, along with other members of the Executive department.
“Oo, maliwanag dito sa nakikita ng LBRMO. Maliwanag na nagalaw at ang tinamaan nga, ay yung mga vi-net ng mga Cabinet Secretaries ito, pagkatapos ililipat [ang pondo] sa districts. Yun ang mabigat, after ratification,” Sotto said, citing among others, the funds for the administration’s Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.
(Yes, it was clear in the findings of the LBRMO. It was clear that there were realignments and affected were the projects vetted by Cabinet secretaries because the funds were transferred to the districts. What’s worse is these were done after ratification.)
He said it was “even larger” than the P79 billion of supposed House realignments the LBRMO earlier found.
Lacson said House leaders realigned allocations totaling to P95 billion to reward those who voted for Arroyo to be House Speaker, even after its ratification last February 8.
The House, he added, did not deny that its itemizations were done post-bicam.
As for the Senate, the LBRMO did not find post-bicam itemizations as alleged by House appropriations committee chair Rolando Andaya Jr. Lacson said the Senate already submitted their itemized amendments before the congressional bicameral meeting on the budget.
Sen. Loren Legarda, finance committee chair, recalled and reiterated this during their meeting, he said.
“So there’s deception when Rep. Andaya said submitted our items February 11, when the bicam has ended. They merely asked for a copy [of our amendments] and they were given [February 11]. You see, that why they won’t give the media a copy. It will prove that he was wrong,” Lacson said in a chance interview in Senate Wednesday.
The two senators also negated Castro, who, in reporting his version of what transpired during the meeting, said the Senate wanted Duterte to itemize the lump sum appropriations in the GAB, which Andaya had called “unconstitutional.”
The House Majority Leader even said that this “did not sit well” with the President who refused to be involved in allocating government funds.
“[It was] Not true. Instead, my suggestion didn’t sit well with the congressmen. Executive Secretary [Salvador] Medialdea and [Finance] Sec. [Carlos] Dominguez in fact favorably endorsed my suggestion to PRRD as a practical and logical approach to break the impasse,” Lacson said.
“What was obvious last night is that the suggestion didn’t sit well with the congressmen because they cannot be sure if all their realignments will be adopted. It’s all about their pork, not mindful if they will be derailing the flagship projects of the government,” he added.
Sotto, for his part, described Castro’s statements as “inaccurate.”
“Two inaccurate points. There is nothing unconstitutional about the suggestion. Cong.Andaya indeed said that but we said it was not and what they were doing was the one that was unconstitutional,” he said in a text message when sought to comment on Castro.
“Second, when the President [said] he would want to avoid that, he did not say ‘no’ and in fact ES Medialdea and Sec. Dominguez agreed,” he maintained.
Lacson said Duterte, “sensing resistance from the House members, told the group to just resolve the issues involved among ourselves.”