Opposition congressmen get zero budget in 2018

Bea Cupin

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Opposition congressmen get zero budget in 2018
(UPDATED) House opposition leader Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman says the move was done in the bicameral conference 'reportedly upon instructions of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The leadership of the House of Representatives surreptitiously slashed or completely removed the budgets of several lawmakers, particularly those who have been critical of the administration, from the now-signed 2018 budget.

In separate statements on Wednesday, December 20, members of the “Magnificent 7,” who brand themselves as the genuine opposition, called it an “assault to democracy” and a combination of “vengeance plus caprice.”

“Exacting revenge on the genuine opposition solons by removing projects dedicated not to them but to their citizens shows their desire for autocracy, for dangerous dictatorship. The healthy exchange of opposing views is crucial in a democracy,” Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat, a Liberal Party (LP) member, said.

Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman said the move was done in the bicameral conference with the Senate, “reportedly upon instructions of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.”

“Why punish citizens and communities for the earnest and valiant efforts of their Representatives to maintain responsible dissent as the bedrock of democracy?” he asked.

Lagman said their respective budgets would not only fund “pet projects” but also “essential infrastructure” in line with no less than the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build program.

According to sources, House majority members belonging to the LP also saw their district budgets for infrastructure projects slashed. They include:

  • Quezon City 3rd District Representative Bolet Banal
  • Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher Belmonte
  • Cavite 1st District Representative Francis Gerald Abaya
  • Quezon 2nd District Representative Vicente Alcala
  • Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao

Bag-ao, in a statement on Monday, said she approached House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas last December 13 to clarify the rumored budget cut.

“We had a very cordial, respectful, and candid discussion, and upon checking, he confirmed that there was indeed a budget cut for some districts, including the Lone District of Dinagat Islands,” Bag-ao said.

“I went to Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez after that to seek further enlightenment about this matter. I mentioned to him that this allocation is important for Dinagatnons who are longing for development and basic services that were out of reach to many of them in the past,” she continued, adding that all citizens “are in need of attention from this government.”

The budget cut also affected non-LP members who are part of the majority. Budgets for Ilocos Norte 2nd District Representative Imelda Marcos and Davao del Norte 2nd District Representative Antonio Floirendo were also slashed.

Marcos is a political rival of Fariñas, while Floirendo recently found himself in a tiff with Alvarez.

Private meetings 

While several sources attested to the reported cut, Rappler could not independently verify these with documents publicly available.

A copy of the General Appropriations Act (GAA), which would show the infrastructure allocations made per district, has yet to be released to the public.

“I cannot [confirm] as I do not even have a copy of the GAA. Please check with [House] appropriations committee chairman [Karlo] Nograles,” said Fariñas.

The changes, according to a source in the House, were apparently as late as a few days before the bicameral conference committee resolved the “impasse” between the two chambers’ versions of the 2018 budget.

Allocations for districts, including those of dissenting legislators, were intact when the House passed the budget on 3rd reading.

The bicameral conference committee, composed of top officials from both the House and the Senate, had authorized Nograles and Senate finance committee chairperson Loren Legarda to discuss the differences in the budget through a “small group.”

These meetings were done in private.

Baguilat said the actions of the congressional leadership went against earlier statements of Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, who had once pointed out that the budget had become a “political tool.”

“My constituents in Ifugao are taxpayers too. The allocations would have improved the national roads to the rice terraces and poor upland communities,” said Baguilat.

Several legislators had confronted Alvarez and Fariñas about the budget cut, according to an Inquirer report.

“Confronted? Nobody does that to me as I don’t cherish confrontations. Why don’t you ask her if she did confront me, or even thought of doing so?” said Fariñas, when asked about it.

To one legislator affected by the cut, the move came off as a warning to them for not following the House leadership’s directives. 

“It serves as fair warning to the rest of the House members that all must obey and support the move for a Con-Ass (constituent assembly), no elections in 2019, and a shift to constitutional authoritarianism,” said Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin in a statement. 

In particular, for those who belong to the majority, this meant it was time to move out. 

Done before 

Reducing or totally removing the budget of opposition legislators is nothing new. 

In this administration alone, for instance, Camiguin Representative Xavier Jesus Romualdo saw infrastructure projects for his district removed from the 2017 budget.

It was in Camiguin, during the 2016 campaign, where local officials allegedly tried to sabotage a campaign event by now President Rodrigo Duterte. Romualdo, a former LP member, has since moved to the ruling PDP-Laban of Duterte.

Legislators themselves do not know how much was removed from their district. They also do not know where the money was reallocated instead.

But in a House where “opposition” lawmakers are actually members of the majority, things get tricky. 

Belmonte and Bag-ao, for instance, are members of the powerful committee on justice since the LP is part of the majority. Parties who belong to either the majority or minority blocs are allocated slots in committees. 

The two have consistently been voices of dissent as the committee tackled the impeachment cases filed against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista. 

If the LP itself leaves the majority, this would mean they lose all committee memberships, including the Deputy Speaker post for Marikina City 2nd District Representative Romero Quimbo.

If individual members, such as Belmonte and Bag-ao, decide to leave the majority bloc, that means they lose their committee memberships. They will then be replaced by other LP members.

The LP, according to sources, has yet to make a party decision. – Rappler.com 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.