MANILA - The power struggle between 2 allies of President Rodrigo Duterte over who should sit at the helm of the House of Representatives was an issue confined to the chamber, until the prevailing faction decided to abruptly suspend session until mid-November without approving on final reading the P4.5-trillion 2021 budget.
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his allies on Tuesday suspended the House's plenary work a week ahead of Congress' scheduled October 17 break, after Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco - his rival for the speakership - threatened to oust him on October 14.
Cayetano's move places in limbo the timely passage of next year's budget which contains funding for construction projects that will generate jobs, and health programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said.
THE BUDGET PROCESS AND CONGRESS' TIMELINE
"I am not disappointed at what they want to do. They are completely autonomous as far as their rules are concerned," Sotto told reporters in a virtual press conference.
"Ang disappointment ko is the timetable. As far as the Senate is concerned, it is very, very tight," he said.
Under the law, the Senate cannot discuss the budget in plenary until an approved version of the spending bill is transmitted from the House.
In this year's schedule, the House was supposed to approve the 2021 budget on final reading next week so that senators can study the measure during Congress' annual October to November break.
Prior to Cayetano's move, senators anticipated that they would be debating on the budget, finalizing it in a bicameral conference, and submitting it for the President's signature before Congress adjourns on December 19 for the holiday break.
The Senate cannot be "rushed" to finish the scrutinizing the 2021 budget within a week, Sotto said.
"Almost all senators ask questions on all the departments. Pinaka mabilis niyan 2 weeks sa interpellations (The fastest we can end interpellations is in 2 weeks)," the Senate President said.
"Hindi kami puwedeng madaliin dahil pag minadali kami, maraming blind spot na mangyayari," he said.
(We cannot be rushed because if they rush us, there will be a lot of blind spots.)
"Barya-barya na nga lang nakakarating sa kababayan natin, hindi pa namin babantayan?"
(Our countrymen only get a small amount, why should we be stopped from guarding that?)
Sotto and Sen. Panfilo Lacson both dismissed Cayetano's suggestion to "shorten" the bicameral conference deliberations wherein both chambers of Congress iron out differing provisions in the 2021 budget.
"'Yun ang napakahirap ipangako. Kung lululunin namin lahat ng insertions, puwede, but that will not happen," said Lacson, who has been moving for the deletion of discretionary funds inserted into annual spending bills.
(That will be hard to promise. We can do that if we will swallow all their insertions, but that will not happen.)
Under the law, all General Appropriations Acts expire on December 31 of every year.
If a new funding measure is not approved before the deadline, the government is forced to spend based on a reenacted budget.
This means that the government will use the last budget signed into law as the basis of its expenses while the President has not yet signed a new spending bill.
In the first few months of 2019, the Philippines was forced to operate on a reenacted budget after bickering in the House of Representatives delayed the passage of the appropriations law.
While Duterte managed to sign the 2019 budget in April of that year, the 4-month delay slowed down the Philippine economy to 5.6 percent, from 6.3 percent in the last quarter of 2018.
"The last time we had a speakership dispute, we had a reenacted budget, and the last time we had a reenacted budget, we had a very low growth," Senate Committee on Finance chair Sonny Angara said.
"[Kasi] walang bagong proyekto until we pass the [new] budget," he said.
(There will be no new projects until we pass a new budget.)
"There is no money for new projects... e doon 'yung nagkakaroon ng spur sa economy, doon nagkakaroon ng trabaho," he said.
(That is what spurs the economy, that is what creates jobs.)
WHAT'S AT STAKE
The timely passage of the budget this year is more crucial as the 2021 spending bill holds funds that will help the Philippines - the epicenter of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia - recover from the health and economic effects of the global pandemic, Sotto said.
"There are priorities for 2021: Health, 'Build, Build, Build', digital infrastructure because of distance learning for students, agriculture and food pati value chain niya," he said.
"Other new normal priorities, madedelay lahat 'yun (will all be delayed)... Key services will be affected," he said.
"The delay of a project implementation would mean missed opportunities," he said.
The untimely passage of the 2021 budget will "really affect our economy," Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said in an earlier interview.
The government's P4.56-trillion allocation for 2021 will be trimmed to P4.1 trillion of the government will be forced to spend based on the 2020 spending law, he said.
"Agarang makikita mo na ang diperensya na talagang maraming project na nakakasa na ang hindi ma-i-implement on time and it would really also affect our economy," the Budget chief said,
(You can easily see the difference, that there will be a lot of projects in the pipeline that will not be implemented on time and it would really also affect our economy.)
"As much as possible, we cannot afford a reenacted budget lalo na sa panahong ito (especially in times like these)," he said.
POLITICS OVER NATIONAL BUDGET?
Cayetano's decision to halt House sessions to avert his possible overthrow as Speaker was "not a good judgment call," Lacson said.
"Talagang related sa speakership 'yung nangyayari sa ating budget measure... [But] We cannot sacrifice the national budget," he said.
(What is happening to our budget measure is really related to the speakership.)
"Whatever squabble they (House) have, dapat hindi na nadamay 'yung national budget (the national budget should not be dragged into it)," he said.
House leaders should realize that politicking is "not time-bound" unlike the country's budget, Angara said.
"Ang mahihingi lang namin sa House counterparts namin is to prioritize the passage of the budget," he said.
(The only thing we can ask from our House counterparts is to prioritize the passage of the budget.)
"Kung may mga fights for chairmanships... sana that can wait until next year kasi hindi time-bound yun eh. 'Yung budget is time-bound."
(If there are fights for chairmanships... maybe that can wait until next year because that is not time-bound. The budget is time-bound.)
Sotto said the Senate cannot impose on the House to resume sessions as it is a co-equal legislative chamber, but urged lawmakers to set aside politics in favor of the national budget.
"Dapat kaming lahat, kaming mga pulitiko, dapat isipin namin muna paano makaka-recover ang bansa sa pandemic agad... kaysa sa mga sitwasyon namin sa pulitika," Sotto said.
(All of us politicians should prioritize how the country can immediately recover from the pandemic... instead of our political situations.)
"Siguro para maiwasan yung ganyan [speakership issue]... Dapat at the start of the Congress, magbotohan na lang kayo kung sino gusto niyong ibotong speaker," he said.
(Maybe to avoid those issues... They should just vote for the speaker they want.)
"Wala nang term sharing para wala ng mga ganiyan," he said.
(There should be no term sharing so we can avoid these issues.)
Citing parliamentary courtesy, the Senate President declined to give more details about the repercussions of Cayetano's call to abruptly halt sessions, gambling the government's COVID-19 response efforts.
"I'll leave it to the people na lang to see. Nakikita naman nila e (They can see it anyway). I'll leave it to our countrymen to gauge what is happening to our government," Sotto said.