Congressman issues debate dare to Sotto, Lacson over budget squabble

By Ellson Quismorio

A House leader has challenged Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Panfilo Lacson to a debate even as he claimed that “pork barrel” exists among senators.

“Hindi naman sa ako ay nagdudunong-dunungan, kung puwedeng makipag-debate sa akin sina Senate President Sotto or Lacson. Paliwanagan lamang, walang personalan dito, magkakaibigan kami. Sa harap ng taumbayan, ilahad natin, isa-isahin natin,” 1-SAGIP Party-List Rep. and House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rodante Marcoleta said in an interview Friday.

1-SAGIP Party-List Rep. and House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rodante Marcoleta (CONGRESS / MANILA BULLETIN)
1-SAGIP Party-List Rep. and House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rodante Marcoleta (CONGRESS / MANILA BULLETIN)

(Not that I’m acting smart, but could Senate President Sotto or Lacson have a debate with me? Just for clarity, nothing personal, we’re all friends. Let’s lay out everything before the public.)

The House of Representatives and Senate are at an impasse on how to move forward with the enactment of the much-delayed P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019.

The House has already sent its approved version of the General Appropriations Bill (GAB, or the proposed budget) to Malacañang via the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). However, Sotto has reportedly refused to sign the GAB as if in protest over the House’s “amendments” to the bill after it was ratified by the two chambers via the Bicameral Conference Committee last February 8.

These amendments were nothing but the itemization of Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) projects among the respective districts of the almost 300 House members. The projects will be sourced from the previously agreed-upon lump sum realignments within the GAB worth P99 billion, from which the chosen districts of the 23 senators will also benefit from.

But the Senate submitted an incomplete list of lump sum realignments (the list lacked the names of senators who designated the enumerated projects), something that Marcoleta highlighted.

“May itinatago siguro sila kaya ayaw nilang mag-itemized. Baka mapag-kumparahan kasi na kami sinusunod lang namin ang pangangailangan ng requirement ng appropriation para hindi mauwi sa pork,” he said.

(Maybe they are hiding something that’s why they don’t want to itemize. It could get compared to what we did, which is fulfilling the appropriation requirement in order to avoid pork.)

House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Camarines Sur 1st district Rep. Rolando Andaya earlier differentiated post-ratification and post-enactment amendments, saying that only the latter is considered a no-no by the Supreme Court (SC) based on its November 2013 ruling wherein it outlawed lawmaker’s discretionary funds or pork barrel.

The 2019 GAB is still without President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature, thus it has not been enacted. The government has been running on a reenacted or recycled 2018 budget since January, and this bodes ill for the Duterte administration’s projects this year.

Instead of accusing House members of still enjoying pork, Marcoleta advised anti-pork crusader Lacson to “check out his own backyard.”

“Si Sen. Lacson, kaibigan ko naman iyan, kung talagang ang crusade mo ay pork tumingin ka muna sa backyard mo (Sen. Lacson, he’s my friend, if your crusade against pork is really serious then check out your backyard first).

“Hindi lang kami, maging consistent ka, alam mo rin naman iyun. Ayaw naman niyang diretsahin na maraming pork sa kanyang mga kasama, bakit hindi iyun ang una niyang tingnan? (Don’t focus on us, be consistent, you know how it is. He refuses to say directly that his colleagues have a lot of pork, why not look at that first?)”

Senators knew need for itemization

Following the SC decision that struck down pork, the House has turned to line-item budgeting as a way to avoid the old practice of approving lump sums in the national budget only to determine its usage after the GAB becomes a law.

Meanwhile, a House member who declined to be named reckoned that there’s something more to the Senate’s refusal to sign the 2019 national budget.

According to the lawmaker, the senators were well aware that the Bicam report on the budget that the two chambers approved last February 8 would have to be “fleshed out” at some point for the purpose of complying with the SC decision.

“Itemization is really done even after the ratification of the Bicam report. After all, the Bicam report only contains lump sums and not specific projects so fleshing out of the appropriations really still has to be done,” the lawmaker said in a separate interview.

“I also know that senators were still itemizing their allocations even after ratification of the Bicam report because we were following up with them our requested projects. So this whole thing is definitely about something else and not the itemization-after-ratification issue,” the solon added.