Budget Watch

Senators say ‘unconstitutional’ for House to amend 2021 budget after passage

JC Gotinga
Senators say ‘unconstitutional’ for House to amend 2021 budget after passage

Opening prayer: Senators bow their heads in prayer during the opening of the 2nd Regular Session of the 18th Congress Monday, July 27, 2020. Some senators to be led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III will proceed to the House of Representatives in the afternoon to hear the President’s 5th State of the Nation Address in a hybrid joint session. (Henzberg Austria/Senate PRIB)

Nevertheless, Senator Panfilo Lacson is thankful the House of Representatives passed its version of the budget bill on time, giving the Senate enough time for its work

Although it passed the 2021 national budget bill days ago, the House of Representatives is still adding amendments to the measure – the reason it has yet to transmit the bill to the Senate.

This, according to several senators, is unconstitutional. It does not even matter whether the amendments are “institutional,” as the House leaders claimed. Senator Panfilo Lacson on Tuesday, October 20, said the Constitution rules out amending a bill after its final reading by a chamber of Congress.

That the House is letting agencies from the Executive department propose these “institutional” amendments – augmentations of their allocations – at this point is also unlawful, Lacson pointed out.

“It’s unconstitutional. They claim that it’s errata to be submitted by the agencies – but that’s another violation,” Lacson said in an interview on CNN Philippines’ The Source on Tuesday.

Executive agencies should have finished their role in crafting the national budget when they prepared the National Expenditure Program (NEP). Once the NEP is submitted to Congress – the Senate and the House – the budget process enters the “authorization” phase.

“We cannot allow agencies under the Executive branch to participate in the authorization phase. That is the exclusive domain of the Congress of the Philippines,” Lacson said.

“Whether or not it’s institutional or individual amendment is of no moment because the Constitution is very clear – they cannot anymore introduce amendments after the third and final reading of any bill, this bill included,” he added.

Article VI, Section 26 of the 1987 Constitution states, “Upon the last reading of a bill, no amendment thereto shall be allowed.”

“In the meantime, we will have to live with that, and tackle the budget measure in the Senate once it is transmitted to us, whether soft copy or hard copy,” Lacson said.

Other senators who had also flagged the House’s last-minute amendments and called the move unconstitutional were Franklin Drilon and Francis Pangilinan, both from the opposition.

The House passed its version of the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) last Friday, October 16, after marathon plenary hearings in a special session called by President Rodrigo Duterte.

The recent standoff between newly installed House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and his predecessor, Taguig-Pateros Representative Alan Peter Cayetano, had threatened to delay the budget process by a month until Duterte insisted they resolve the matter and convene a special session.

Instead of printing the budget bill right away and afterwards handing it over to the Senate, the House said it would take a few days to add “institutional” amendments that were not in the 3rd reading copy of the bill – the version the House passed.

Printing the 2021 GAB into several hefty volumes will take about a week. On Monday, October 19, Velasco said the House would transmit the budget bill to the Senate by October 30 instead of November 5, as it had initially planned.

Lacson said this will give the Senate enough time for its work on the budget bill.

“We are thankful to the (House) leadership for passing the budget on 3rd and final reading last October 16. And we have enough time to do our thing and approve on 3rd and final reading our own version of the budget on or before we go on break [in December] or even earlier, so there will be enough time, say one to two weeks, for the bicameral conference committee to happen,” said Lacson.

Why not wait until the bicameral conference?

The bicameral conference committee will convene after the Senate passes its version of the GAB to come up with a unified version of the bill based on the Senate and House versions. This final version will then be ratified by both chambers, after which it will be submitted to Malacañang for study and the President’s signature or veto.

Instead of amending the approved 3rd reading copy of the bill, Lacson said the House could have just extended its session and delayed the bill’s passage by a week so that the process would have followed the Constitution.

The Senate, meanwhile, has decided to come out of recess and resume session a week earlier on November 9 to make some headway in its work on the budget measure.

“If I may suggest, siguro (perhaps) the better way to do it is just to transmit to us whatever they passed on 3rd and final reading, kung ano man ang form noon (whatever its form), and we tackle everything in the bicameral conference. They can introduce their own amendments in the bicameral conference,” Lacson said.

Sotto: We will presume regularity

Senate President Vicente Sotto III told reporters in a message on Monday night that if members of the House had manifested prior to the bill’s passage their intention to afterwards make further changes “subject to style,” then it may be acceptable.

“It means they approved it in principle,” Sotto said.

“As they (the House) submit to us, we will, of course, presume regularity,” Sotto added.

Higher budget for scientific research

Lacson, one of the Senate’s strictest watchers of the national budget, has questioned a number of lump sums and repeat items in the 2021 NEP, particularly in the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

The Senate will be watching out for these when they sift through the provisions of the House’s version of the budget bill.

Lacson said he is inclined to augment the budget of the Department of Science and Technology, whose allocation for research had been slashed by P76 million in the NEP.

Investing in research and development can save the government billions of pesos in the long run, the senator said. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.