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House needs tokhang



The faceoff between the Executive and members of the new House leadership over the 2019 budget had legislators in the House of Representatives looking like a bunch of gluttons yearning for the dreaded pork barrel which the Supreme Court (SC) had long declared as unconstitutional.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said House members may need rehabilitation and detoxification of their money addiction that raises the suggestion of a tokhang version being initiated there.

The House appropriations committee wanted to return to the Palace the General Appropriations Act it submitted for next year to restore the obligation-based budgeting.

The 2019 outlay will use a cash-based scheme which Budget Secretary Ben Diokno said was meant to remove corrupt and wasteful practices in the use of public funds as it would require agencies to finish projects within the budget year.

A compromise was reached which House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr. said took the form of a “hybrid” system that will extend the effectivity of funded projects to one and a half year while slashed funding for the 2019 budget will be restored.

Andaya was part of the meeting that included President Rodrigo Duterte and Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo where the deadlock ended and where the House agreed to continue tackling the 2019 budget.

Andaya, who was budget secretary of former President Arroyo, said among the agreements was for the Department of Budget and Management to source funds in restoring allocations for “much-needed projects, particularly in the health and education sector.”

The cash-based scheme slashed funding for several agencies as multi-year projects were not allowed or placed under review.

The House resistance to cash-based budgeting embodied under the Budget Reform bill that House appropriations committee chair Karlo Nograles wanted retrieved from the Senate is a throwback to the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) escapades of the previous administration of President Noynoy Aquino.

The obligation-based budgeting, for instance, allowed the P3.5 billion Dengvaxia racket where the Special Allotment Release Order for it was obligated on the last working day or 29 December 2015.

The previous administration was notorious for two forms of budget manipulation which were the DAP and underspending that were both identified as sources of discretionary funds that were not possible under the new scheme.

The SC’s declaration of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) as unconstitutional in 2013 induced both maneuvers.

Diokno said underspendings in 2014 and 2015, which were the years after the PDAF ruling, amounted to P631 billion.

By limiting the validity of appropriations to one-year, underspending has been reduced to P85.2 billion in 2017, Diokno said.

Since the goal of the shift to a cash-based budget is to increase the efficiency of government operations as delivery of public services becomes faster and improved, Filipinos wanted to know what’s up with the legislators they elected.

Diokno guessed that the motivation of the House members can be found on the fact 2019 is an election year.

“During election year — I’m speculating — they want more projects in their districts. That’s natural, right? If you’re a congressman, you want to impress upon your constituents. Maybe with more projects,” he said.

Still many are bewildered by the flip-flopping House members.

Diokno said it was Nograles who sponsored the bill. “Now, after the change in leadership, there’s a change in his mind? He now says it’s a bad measure.”

Lacson asked: “Why the change of heart? They were the ones who passed the Budget Reform bill when we have not even held debates but now after the change in leadership, the House (is singing a) different tune.” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was also askance saying that the Duterte administration was relying on the new House leaders, who are “close allies,” to support the administration’s reform measures.

For now, the Executive appears to have given in to the House but the recent stalemate proves that bad weeds never die.