House quarrel traced to unequal ‘pork slices’
MANILA, Philippines — What’s the House lawmakers’ beef with the pork in the 2021 budget?
The bone of contention in the P4.5-trillion budget proposal for next year is Malacañang’s “unequal distribution of pork slices” amounting to P397 billion in lump-sum funds parked in the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), lawmakers said on Monday.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said her colleagues were quarreling over the apportioning of the so-called pork, which was “now sliced unevenly among districts and regions,” resulting in disgruntlement among members of the majority coalition.
Pork refers to discretionary and lump-sum items in the budget, usually inserted after enactment, a practice banned by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Not part of DPWH budget
The DPWH lump sum, according to the Makabayan lawmaker, is meant to go to infrastructure projects not included in the agency’s proposed budget in the 2021 National Expenditure Program, the precursor of the general appropriations bill.
“These allocations are primarily for the construction, repair and maintenance of roads, bridges, flood control projects, and not for the construction of hospitals and other health facilities,” she said.
“As it was before, so it is still now: Malacañang’s apparent ‘unequal distribution of pork slices’ may derail the passage of the 2021 proposed national budget,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said in a separate statement.
The leader of the progressive Makabayan bloc pointed to the “apparent disparity” in allocations of funding for projects of the DPWH in various districts as the root of the conflict now dividing the 300-member House.
A House source told the Inquirer that the issue stemmed from the practice in the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) of declaring certain DPWH appropriations as “for later release (FLR)” without specifying the district.
A Mindanao lawmaker complained about the practice, which apparently would continue through 2021, describing it as the “discretionary fund of DPWH as to which district it will release to, if at all.”
“If the line items are approved in the GAA (General Appropriations Act) by Congress, they should all be released, no ifs and buts,” the lawmaker said in a group chat among House majority members, a screenshot of which was shown to the Inquirer.
“The Constitution does not allow the executive branch to impound [funds] and not to release them. The executive cannot have the discretion when to release them and to which district it can favorably give. This FLR scheme should be stopped, discontinued and set aside,” he said.
The Mindanao lawmaker declined to discuss the matter when sought by the Inquirer for additional comment.
Shortly after the 2020 budget was signed in January, the DBM said all new items, including funds realigned by Congress “which did not undergo the usual budget evaluation process,” would be subject to compliance with documentation requirements before release.
The DBM, under National Budget Circular No. 578, tagged such projects as “for later release” and subject to compliance with specific conditions.
Another senior lawmaker in the House said his peers had been complaining about the lack of transparency in budget allocations, especially lump sums that were not itemized according to item, region or district.
“It’s very glaring that congressmen close to the House leadership are getting the lion’s share of the budget pie,” the source said.
“This is also the reason why many lawmakers are questioning the supposed huge allocations of projects to some areas while others did not get as much,” Zarate said, alluding to the back-and-forth between allies of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his presumptive successor, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.
Last week, Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr. questioned why Taguig City and Camarines Sur province, the home districts of Cayetano and Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., were receiving upward of P8 billion and P11 billion, respectively, much bigger than his own district’s P2 billion.
Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte, the son of President Duterte, entered the fray over the weekend, threatening to ask the Mindanao bloc to declare the seats of Cayetano and 22 deputy speakers vacant on Monday to force a leadership change.
But nothing happened on Monday, as House leaders suspended the session less than 20 minutes after the opening.
A puzzled buzz rose in the plenary hall with only two dozen lawmakers present in person and the rest of the members taking part via Zoom following the abrupt suspension of the proceedings.
A House source said many in the hall were surprised at the sudden suspension called by the presiding officer, Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu, an ally of Cayetano.
The source said the suspension showed the House leadership was not taking Duterte’s threat lightly, though it could also clear the way for Duterte’s “graceful exit” from the speakership row.
Duterte did not show up.
In a television interview on Monday, Duterte’s friend, ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House appropriations panel, cited a 99.9 percent chance that Cayetano would keep his post.
“He remains loyal to the institution, so he will go with whatever the majority decides,” Yap said of Duterte.
“Never did he say he will declare [a vacancy]. What he said was he would ask the Mindanao bloc, if they have complaints, then they can declare. Because he personally does not have complaints since he does not intervene in the budget,” he said.
Yap said he was not aware of what the Mindanao bloc intended to do.
“But speaking for myself, definitely I support the leadership of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano,” he said.
An Inquirer source, however, said the restiveness in the House might not be over as Velasco had been seen in Davao, possibly trying to secure the backing of another Duterte child, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.
Malacañang said President Duterte would not intervene in the brewing leadership row in the House, but wanted the lawmakers to ensure the passage of the 2021 budget on time.
“The Constitution is clear. Only the members of Congress can decide who will be their leader. We leave that to the members of the House of Representatives,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told a press briefing in Cagayan de Oro City.
But for the President, he said, the timely passage of the budget for next year is “nonnegotiable.”
“[T]he budget must be passed on time,” Roque added.
—With reports from Marlon Ramos and Julie M. Aurelio
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