House panel microphone shut to cut scrutiny of VP secret funds
MANILA, Philippines — The House appropriations committee cut short an attempt by opposition lawmakers to question the Office of the Vice President (OVP) on how it spent P125 million of its confidential funds in 2022 as the panel swiftly closed Wednesday’s budget briefing in deference to Vice President Sara Duterte.
Ilocos Norte Rep. Ferdinand Alexander Marcos, son of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and nephew of Speaker Martin Romualdez, invoked the “long-standing tradition of giving the OVP parliamentary courtesy” in calling for the conclusion of the hearing, preventing the Makabayan bloc from confronting Duterte on the OVP’s secret expenses.
Duterte was present to lead the agency’s presentation of its P2.4-billion budget proposal for 2024, including P500 million in confidential funds, or lump sum items earmarked for an agency’s surveillance activities and not subject to regular state audit.
The concurrent education secretary later attended the budget hearing for the Department of Education (DepEd), which is seeking another P150 million in confidential funds for next year.
The budget hearing for the OVP lasted only 22 minutes, of which 10 minutes were used up for a video presentation on the agency’s accomplishments and plans for 2024.
After the presentation, Marcos, the House senior deputy majority leader, moved to terminate the budget deliberation despite objections from ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro and Kabataan Rep. Raoul Danniel Manuel.
Davao de Oro Rep. Maria Carmen Zamora, the panel’s vice chairperson, called for a vote via raising of hands and declared the conclusion of the hearing after 21 members voted to close it.
Mic switched off
Castro tried to convince the body to resume the hearing as she wanted to ask Duterte to explain the OVP’s use of confidential funds.
“This P125 million should be explained and the Vice President, in a previous statement, said she will explain. So I have the right to explain why I voted no and the people must know how the OVP spent this confidential fund,” she said.
At that point, Castro could not continue as her microphone was switched off.
Earlier, the Makabayan bloc criticized the OVP for its secret expenses, citing a provision in the 1987 Constitution stating that “no money shall be paid out of the treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation made by law.”
The bloc cited a special allotment release order (Saro) of the Department of Budget and Management issued on Dec. 13, 2022, covering P125 million for confidential funds with the approval of the Office of the President (OP).
A Saro is an authority issued to an agency to incur obligations within a limited amount and specified period and also includes which laws authorize the release of the funds for a specific purpose.
After the hearing, the Makabayan lawmakers criticized the abrupt termination of the proceedings.
Castro said: “I am angry at this development because we were ready with our questions, but we think the OVP was not ready to explain this to the people how it spent the funds. This should not be kept secret.”
She said the members of the House committee were too “lenient” on Duterte.
Manuel added: “I thought the Vice President was brave enough to answer questions on the confidential funds for 2022? She was there physically, but she didn’t even answer our questions.”
Former OVP spokesperson and lawyer Barry Gutierrez, who worked under Duterte’s predecessor Leni Robredo, said the hearing was a “missed opportunity” for lawmakers to question both the enormity of the entire budget and the purpose for the secret funds.
“This was perhaps the only time they could ask the agency directly about these questions and they missed it,” Gutierrez said. “If Congress itself is not allowed to exercise its function, then who else can do that?”
He acknowledged that Congress usually terminated budget hearings for the OP and the OVP as a courtesy, but “that was only possible before because previous offices were not mired in the same controversies.”
“This is really disappointing,” Gutierrez said.
During DepEd’s budget hearing, however, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman was given the opportunity to ask Duterte about the education department’s request for P150 million in confidential expenses.
“Considering the universe of shortages in the DepEd which would need adequate funding, would you voluntarily withdraw your request for confidential funds with the DepEd?” Lagman asked her.
Duterte replied: “There is a purpose and a need for confidential funds in the DepEd, because basic education is intertwined with national security.”
She also confirmed that DepEd “secured the assistance” of experienced military and police officers in its confidential and surveillance activities.
“Yes, our field operations are constantly in discussion with the Philippine National Police, National Bureau of Investigation, and Armed Forces of the Philippines with regard to security issues among our learners and teaching and non-teaching personnel, and in our schools as well,” she said.
Duterte added, however, that she was leaving it to the wisdom of Congress whether to grant DepEd’s request.