Cayetano to Aquino: Ask SC to clarify ruling

MANILA, Philippines – Instead of urging Congress to pass a resolution, President Benigno Aquino III should ask the Supreme Court to clarify the parameters of its ruling on the use of government savings. 

This is the proposal of Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, who warned that a joint resolution redefining the term “savings” might create public perception that the executive and legislative branches are circumventing the Court’s decision on the administration’s spending program.

Cayetano said Aquino should ask the Solicitor General to file an urgent motion for clarification before the Supreme Court to guide the executive branch in using savings.

“Ask them to clarify the terms and then ask them to do this quickly. [Clarify] the parameter and definition of savings. Can the government stop a project it does not want to implement? How do you apply the definition of savings? The clarification will benefit agencies that are now afraid of using savings,” Cayetano said in a press briefing in Taguig on Friday, August 1.

The Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is the administration’s stimulus measure to address underspending and pump-prime the economy from 2011 to 2013.

The Court last month declared key acts under DAP unconstitutional, including declaring withdrawn unobligated allotments and unreleased appropriations as savings before the end of the fiscal year.

In response, President Aquino asked Congress to pass a joint resolution that will clarify terms related to DAP including the definition of savings. Yet former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and militant lawmakers said this challenges the Court’s ruling, a claim the Palace and the Senate leadership denied. 

In proposing the motion for clarification, Cayetano echoed the point of Aquino and some legal experts that the Court decision mistakenly touched on the liability of officials implementing projects, creating what the president called a “chilling effect.”

“From the present decision, the atmosphere of everyone is fear because they might face a lawsuit. The clarification is for the frontliners, not the secretaries. It’s the ones on the ground who sign documents that are afraid to face cases now,” Cayetano said.

Cayetano said it will be best for the High Court to clarify the issue to avoid further public backlash against the executive department and Congress.

“If we circumvent or appear to circumvent the Supreme Court decision, we’ll be where we are when we started with DAP and [the congressional pork barrel]. You can’t regain the trust of the people by abusing their trust. Any circumvention will be looked at by people as abuse of their trust,” he said.

The majority leader added that Congress should just use its time passing priority legislation instead of clarifying the meaning of savings. One such bill he pushed for is the Scholar ng Bayan bill, which gives college scholarships to top 10 public high school students.

The senator said this addresses the problem following a separate Court decision last year striking down the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or congressional pork barrel, part of which lawmakers used to fund scholarships.

‘Safeguards already in SC ruling’

Cayetano said any definition from Congress must comply with the Court ruling. He added that in defining savings, Congress will also have to go into defining other budgetary terms like “augmentation” and “impoundment.”

He also pointed out that the issue was not just about whether or not funds can be used mid-year or at the end of the year, but whether or not the money in question was actual savings, as defined by the Supreme Court.

“Can Congress define savings? Yes. But only when not defined by the Supreme Court or the Constitution. The Supreme Court did not define savings but in determining whether DAP constituted savings, the Court said, savings can only be generated if the purpose of the appropriation is fulfilled or the need for the appropriation is no longer existent. Savings must be actual,” he said.

Cayetano added, “The safeguards are already found in the Supreme Court decision. The definition that Congress will pass must be in accordance with the ruling. They can no longer argue good faith if they go against the Supreme Court.”

The senator said that the executive and the legislative branches must take the Court’s decision on DAP together with its ruling on PDAF: that lawmakers cannot interfere with budget execution, and the executive must allow Congress to decide where and how the budget will be used.

“Finally, there is the semblance of the power of the purse through the Supreme Court defining it. All of this adds to the power of congressmen and senators. Why would we act to weaken our powers?”

For Senator Grace Poe, Congress can debate on the meaning of savings but it is best to involve former budget secretaries, and experts from academe and the business sector in the process.

“They should also tell us the right way to spend savings. What does savings really mean? Because if it’s just us in Congress who will define this, we cannot say that people will really have full faith in us,” Poe said over radio DZBB.

Institutional changes

Beyond resolutions and motions, Poe and Cayetano said the government has to put in place institutional changes like passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill and posting details on government spending online.

Poe is the sponsor of the FOI bill while Cayetano was one of the authors in the Senate. The bill institutionalizes the constitutional right to know by providing for a process where citizens can request for government data and documents, with clear exceptions.

“The underlying principle is accountability, transparency, to use the money properly. If all of the data are on a website, anyone can look it up. The President says we’re faster than the world in rehabilitating [after Super Typhoon Yolanda]. Let the people judge for themselves. Put the rehabilitation funds’ details on a website and let people research it,” Cayetano said. –