Congress divided on making bicam budget meetings public
MANILA – Should they let the public in or not?
Advocates of government transparency and budget reforms are confused over whether bicameral deliberations on the proposed 2014 budget will be televised or live streamed, since leaders of the two legislative chambers have aired different positions.
Public interest in the budget process has heightened, following media exposés and state audit findings on how badly discretionary public funds have been misused.
While the Priority Development Assistance Fund will be scrapped after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, the pork barrel funds of lawmakers constitute only 1% of the national budget.
Discretionary funds in the Office of the President and other executive agencies are now being watched closely as well. (Read: DAP orals: DBM moved funds sans president's approval)
Discretionary funds are normally deliberated on and negotiated during the bicameral conference committee, when choice members of the House of Representatives and the Senate reconcile the two chambers' versions of the budget bill.
The House of Representatives passed a P2.268-trillion budget for approval, while the Senate approved a lower budget amounting to P2.264 trilllion. The bicam meeting will be held on December 10 at the Senate building.
“We know from recent history that the bicam 'hearings' are where most poison pills or controversial insertions into bills are introduced,” said a Change.org petition to televise and livestream the bicameral sessions. The petition, started by Patricia Tan of the Scrap Pork Network, has gathered more than 3,000 signatures as of Thursday, December 5.
The House of Representatives welcomes the idea of televising and livestreaming the bicameral conference committee meetings.
"No problem. I have already made a statement that there is nothing to hide. We are open to the idea for purposes of transparency," House appropriations committee head Isidro Ungab said.
"I don't think [it will cause delay]. I think we will be able to pass this on or before, probably on December 18," Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr told reporters on Thursday. Congress is scheduled to have its last session on December 18.
It is in the Senate that confusion stems from, Tan pointed out.
In a press statement, Senate finance committee chairman Francis "Chiz" Escudero said the bicam conference committee meeting will be open to public. Read: Senate OKs P14.6 billion supplemental budget
"It's in our rules/parliamentary tradition that all hearings of Congress are public unless declared to be in executive session," Tan quoted Escudero as saying.
Senate President Franklin Drilon is not so sure about the idea, however, Tan said.
Drilon said in a statement on Facebook that the bicam committee will have to decide on the matter. "The Bicameral Conference Committee involves both the Lower House and the Senate. Its current leadership will make that decision." – Rappler.com