Smells like pork? ‘Premature’ 2020 budget bill withdrawn in House plenary

MANILA, Philippines – Is another budget controversy brewing in the House of Representatives? 

The General Appropriations Bill (GAB) on the proposed P4.1-trillion budget for 2020 has been withdrawn from the House plenary last week for allegedly being “premature.”

House Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte confirmed on Sunday, September 1, that he had moved to withdraw House Bill (HB) No. 4228 or the GAB from the plenary when House committee on appropriations chairperson Isidro Ungab filed the measure for first reading on August 28.

“The bill’s withdrawal was not an issue; it was just a procedural matter as the presentation of the budget proposals of all government offices before the House appropriations committee have yet to be completed at the time of HB 4228’s filing on first reading,” said Villafuerte.  

The Camarines Sur 2nd District congressman had consulted Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano if he was aware that Ungab had made the him co-author of the GAB. The Speaker said no, prompting Villafuerte to withdraw the bill.

“Certainly, the premature filing of HB 4228 goes against the very commitment of the House leadership to tackle the 2020 2020 GAB – and all other legislative measures for that matter – in timely fashion and with full transparency from the committee to the plenary stages?” asked Villafuerte.  

“Besides, we have the whole of September and most of October to take up the national budget bill, so there is no need for us to act on it with undue haste,” added the Camarines Norte 2nd District congressman. (READ: House wants to pass proposed 2020 budget by October)

The National Expenditure Program (NEP) – the version of the 2020 budget as prepared by the executive branch – was officially submitted by the Department of Budget and Management to the 18th Congress on August 20, kicking off the start of the budget deliberations per government agency by the House committee on appropriations.  

Ungab confirmed he had tasked the appropriations panel secretariat to file HB 4228 on August 28 since the budget deliberations are scheduled to be finished by this week, but he said he does “not have personal knowledge” on Villafuerte’s order to withdraw the GAB. 

The Davao City 3rd District congressman does not believe the filing was premature, however. 

“No, it cannot be considered as prematurely filed. We cannot conduct budget hearings without a bill filed for first reading, with the budget bill being a replica of the NEP.  Hence, all our meetings are called briefings, which will be converted into hearings once we conduct an executive meeting on the budget,” said Ungab. 

Warning vs hidden ‘pork’

Opposition lawmaker Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna warned the GAB withdrawal may be a prelude for legislators to make illegal insertions in the 2020 budget. 

"This development is quite alarming, even disturbing. It smells like the greasy patronage pork is being put into the oven,” said Zarate, who is also Deputy Minority Leader.

He then called for the suspension of the budget deliberations to ensure the version of the 2020 GAB that will be refiled in the plenary will be based on the NEP.

“In light of this we are calling for a suspension of the budget deliberations until the 2020 GAB, as originally based from the NEP submitted by Malacañang is refiled,” he said. 

Accusations of alleged parking of fundsillegal budget insertions, and conflicts between Congress and the Cabinet not only delayed the passage of the 2019 budget, but also led to the government reenacting the 2018 budget in the 1st quarter of this year. (READ: Cayetano will not tolerate 'parked' funds in 2020 budget)

President Rodrigo Duterte was able to approve the 2019 budget only in April, but he vetoed P95.3 billion worth of allocations under the Department of Public Works and Highways.

The House now aims to pass the 2020 budget on time, before the 18th Congress takes a break in October. The ongoing budget deliberations in the committee level have been swift, with the appropriations panel spending only one hearing to deliberate and approve the budget proposal per government agency. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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