File photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – Can the President use the Executive's budget to augment what has been appropriated for lawmakers?
This is what Supreme Court justices zeroed in during the interpellation of government representatives – Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad – on the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) on Tuesday, January 28.
And the opinion of at least two justices was: No, the Constitution does not allow that.
Jardeleza defended the administration's system of expenditure dubbed DAP, which diverted unused funds from slow-moving government projects, activities, or programs to quick-disbursing ones. The DAP allegedly sought to revamp the country's economy, following "sluggish" government spending in 2011.
The said spending program initiated by President Benigno Aquino III was exposed following a privilege speech by Senator Jinggoy Estrada exposing that Malacañang released an extra P50 million to each senator who voted to convict Chief Justice Renato Corona in the impeachment trial.
It turned out the funds were released under the DAP, which budget experts say goes against the constitutional provision that the President can only realign savings – meaning, from completed projects – within the same agencies.
Abad, however, clarified that no money was involved in the disbursements to senators under the DAP. President Aquino through the DAP simply approved the augmentation of their budget deficiencies, he said.
Abad quoted Section 25(5), Article VI of the 1987 Constitution in justifying the President's power to augment appropriations, which reads:
"No law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations; however, the President, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the heads of Constitutional Commissions may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations."
Bersamin pointed out that "the tenor of the Constitution is clear." The provision, he said in his line of questioning, limits the President's power for budget augmentation only to the executive department.
"Under the principle of interdependence, as well as considering that these were urgent requests coming from the other branches of government, and that these are exceptional instances," he said in an interview after the hearing.
Upon questioning by Bersamin, Jardeleza argued that the separation of powers of the 3 branches of government does not preclude assistance of the President to another branch of government.
Justice Marvic Leonen, however, pointed out that the provision that accords the President and other officials with the power to augment funds uses the term "respective" in the transfer of appropriations.
"And we adjudicate based on the text of the Constitution," he said, echoing Bersamin's point on cross-border fund augmentation.
No more DAP, but power to augment remains
Despite the long hours defending the constitutionality and social benefits of the DAP, Jardeleza said the program won't be used again. (READ: SolGen to SC: DAP won't be used again, petitions moot)
Abad added that the DAP has not been in use since mid-2013, even prior to the filing of the petitions versus the spending program. Nine petitions questioning the constitutionality of the DAP were filed before the SC in 2013.
The budget secretary said the program has been terminated, but the President's power to augment remains.
"As far as we're concerned, tapos na 'yung (we were done with) DAP in 2013," he said. "Now, the authorization that's given to the President under Article 6, Section 25(5) of the Constitution to augment...that will always be there. And since the constitution provides the avenue for the use of savings to augment deficiencies, we feel that the President should be allowed to exercise that."
Abad explained that past administrations have exercised this power, noting that a spending program takes a different form depending on the fiscal needs of the time.
"During the time of President Cory (Corazon Aquino), it was called the Reserve Control Account. During the time of GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), it was called Over-all Savings," he explained in an interview. – Rappler.com