Congress rejects unusual 2021 budget provision
MANILA, Philippines — The Senate and the House of Representatives have rejected an unusual and unprecedented provision in the still unsigned 2021 budget that would have given President Rodrigo Duterte carte blanche to unilaterally declare savings during a national emergency even without the consent or advice of Congress.
Economic managers had wanted that inserted as one of the general provisions of next year’s budget purportedly to allow the President to tap any budgetary allocation during a state of calamity, such as the coronavirus pandemic, instead of having to secure Congress’ approval as enshrined in the Constitution.
But the Senate and House contingents that reconciled conflicting sections of the proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2021 deleted the amendment in the definition of savings, according to the bicameral conference report, which the Senate and the House ratified on Dec. 9.
The President is scheduled to sign the 2021 GAA into law on Dec. 28.
The deleted paragraph, which is absent in previous budget laws, states that: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, final discontinuance or abandonment of a program, activity or project, whether released or unreleased, allotment for which remain unobligated, may be declared by the President as savings in case of a declaration of a state of national calamity as may be necessary to augment deficient programs, activities or projects in the executive department or special purpose funds that are necessary to immediately address the existing calamity.”
The new definition of savings was questioned by Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate at the start of House plenary debates on the P4.5-trillion spending bill in September.
“Congress would be performing self-castration if this pushes through and even its limited power of the coin purse would be further constricted. It is like converting the GAA into a blank check for the President’s whims,” Zarate said.
The sponsor, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House ways and means panel, initially defended the new definition, saying the executive branch should be given “leeway” or flexibility in the discharge of its functions.
But at Zarate’s prodding, the House leader said the provision would be taken out “unless there are parameters.”
Salceda appeared to agree with the Makabayan lawmaker’s assertion that the new definition would give the President “unbridled power” to realign funds in the appropriations law during times of calamity without Congress’ intervention.
“Budgetary matters [are] a power of Congress and we should not relinquish this power,” he said.
During committee deliberations on the national expenditure program, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado tried to justify the provision.
“This provision is similar to the Bayanihan law as required by the executive department in the event of a national emergency, so the government can respond quickly, and it will not require a new law,” the budget chief told the lawmakers, without explaining why they did not want to seek congressional consent and advise on a matter of national importance.
Avisado was referring to the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, or Bayanihan 1, that was approved by both houses of Congress and allowed Mr. Duterte to realign savings and unused funds to COVID-19 response.
“This is just an anticipatory provision in case we have another pandemic or emergency,” Avisado said. INQ
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