Budget ‘as good as reenacted’ due to Cayetano’s push for early break – senators
MANILA, Philippines — The move of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his allies in the House of Representatives to prematurely go on a break guarantees a reenacted national budget for 2021, delivering a blow to the government’s fiscal capacity to counter the staggering economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate leaders said on Wednesday.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the abrupt suspension of the House session on Tuesday took away an entire month from the Senate’s schedule to deliberate on the proposed P4.5-trillion spending program, which the chamber started discussing last month.
Sotto said he was “disappointed” and that he informed Cayetano of the implications of the House leadership’s decision when the Speaker phoned him on Tuesday night.
“I told him, ‘This will be precarious. If the [House version] will be delayed, we will not be able to pass the [national budget] on time,’” he said.
“My disappointment is [due to] the lack of material time given to us [to deliberate on the budget measure],” Sotto told reporters in a Zoom briefing.
Lack of time
The government’s efforts to deal with the increasing demand for better communication infrastructure and the various public health concerns would be severely affected if Congress fails to adopt a new expenditure program, he said.
“We will be stymied in our work … A delay in the passage of the budget would delay the delivery of public services and government projects. It would mean missed opportunities, especially for unemployed Filipinos,” Sotto said.
“I just hope all lawmakers, including us [in the Senate], realize that many Filipinos lost their jobs [because of the pandemic]. That’s why we’re being blamed that we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he added.
In an online interview, Lacson, who had been combing through the government’s annual spending program, said “no amount of magic” would help the Senate finish its own process of reviewing the budget measure before Congress’ holiday recess on Dec. 19.
He reiterated that the House should have submitted its own version of the budget, called the General Appropriations Bill (GAB), before the break on Oct. 17 to give the Senate enough time to scrutinize the budget items when it resumes session a month later.
Lacson said Cayetano’s suggestion for a piecemeal submission to the Senate of the amended portions of the spending bill before Nov. 5 would not work since these documents would not be considered the final and printed GAB.
“If the last day of submission of the amendments [of the House] is Nov. 5, [the national] budget is as good as reenacted,” Lacson said.
“There’s no way for the Senate to finish the budget [deliberations] and even Malacañang to approve the budget before the year ends,” he said. “I don’t see any possibility that we will have a new budget [for next year].”
Told that the Speaker and his allies had assured the public that the spending bill would be passed as scheduled, Lacson said: “That’s really impossible.”
“Even if they promise that it will be passed on time, we cannot do it because of the very tight schedule,” he stressed.
Sotto also scoffed at those who would try to pass the blame on the Senate should there be a reenacted budget, saying they “do not understand” the budget process in Congress.
Malacañang reiterated that President Rodrigo Duterte did not want a reenacted budget.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a television interview on Wednesday that the 2021 budget was “probably the most important” that Duterte had proposed to Congress, as it contained new spending for coronavirus response.
The Palace, however, will keep out of the leadership squabble in the House, Roque said.
Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco have a term-sharing deal brokered by Duterte in July last year. Under that deal, Cayetano would serve as Speaker for the first 15 months of the 18th Congress, and Velasco would take over for the last 21 months of the term.
Cayetano is supposed to step down on Oct. 14 and turn over the leadership to Velasco, but he has refused in what the opposition in the House has called an attempt by him and his allies to control resources in the 2021 budget in preparation for general elections in 2022.
Duterte met with Cayetano and Velasco last week and told them that he hoped they would honor their term-sharing agreement. In a separate meeting this week, the President told Velasco that it was his right to seek the speakership under his term-sharing deal with Cayetano.
But Cayetano and his majority allies had found a way to go around the agreement. Last week, Cayetano interrupted the budget deliberations and, in a speech on the floor, offered to resign. His allies put his offer to a vote and rejected it through a vote of 184-1.
After the removal of a Velasco ally as deputy speaker last Friday, however, the Marinduque representative’s camp announced that the numbers had began to shift in favor of the presumptive new Speaker.
But to prevent Velasco from calling a speakership vote on Oct. 14, Cayetano abbreviated the budget process on Tuesday, getting the spending plan approved by voice vote on second reading, and suspended the session until Nov. 16, disregarding the legislative calendar, which showed the break should be Oct. 17.
In accord with rules
Velasco said Cayetano “bastardized” the House rules by railroading the budget and prematurely suspending the session, and thus “sealed his own fate.”
On Wednesday, Deputy Speaker Neptali Gonzales II defended Cayetano’s moves, saying they were in “accordance with the rules of the House.”
Gonzales argued that under Section 55 of the House rules, as long as three members have spoken in favor of the budget measure and three have spoken against it, and in the last 15 days before adjournment, two have spoken in its favor and one has spoken against it, or one has spoken in its favor and none has spoken against it, then “any member can move to terminate the period of interpellation to go to the period of amendments.”
“I have been a majority leader for nine years and have been [on] the committee on rules for six Congresses. I can say that Section 55 [is] a familiar remedy used in the past several Congresses in several deliberations of the GAB to terminate the period of debate and to expedite its passage,” Gonzales said.
He refuted Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman’s assertion that the suspension of the session until Nov. 16, a period spanning 40 days, violated Section 16 of the Constitution, saying it was merely a directory provision, without “obligatory force and involves no invalidating consequence for its disregard.”
On Lagman’s claim that Cayetano’s motions violated a concurrent resolution authorizing the suspension of the session from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15, Gonzales said the Speaker’s move was “the prerogative of the House.”
“Plenary cannot be guilty of violating its own rules. When plenary decides something, that automatically becomes the rule. If it runs counter to an existing rule, the latter is deemed amended,” he said.
He said there was no way the House could have passed the budget on third and final reading before the Oct. 17 break without a certification of urgency from the Office of the President.
Even with a certification that would allow the House to approve the budget on third reading, he said, there also was no way the House could have transmitted the GAB to the Senate because it first needed to be printed, which would have taken two to three weeks.
Gonzales warned Velasco’s followers against holding their own session, as that would be “illegal.” He urged them to abide by the rules.
“Let us follow the rules in unseating the Speaker and electing a Speaker, and that can only be done in plenary. We are ready to face them in parliamentary warfare that will dislodge Speaker Cayetano,” Gonzales said.
—With reports from Leila B. Salaverria and DJ Yap
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.