P500M a year: Will Senate slash bloated committees?

Oversight committees in the Senate are pratically as many as its regular committees. Many of them are redundant and outdated.

'SO EXPENSIVE.' Sen Koko Pimentel pushes for a review of multimillion-peso oversight committees in the 16th Congress. Likely Senate President Franklin Drilon says he supports the idea. All photos from Senate PRIB

MANILA, Philippines – There’s a Senate Committee on Economic Affairs, and a Special Oversight Committee on Economic Affairs.

What’s the difference? Why the need to create and fund two separate bodies?

Even senators are asking themselves these questions as they face pressure to explain their use of taxpayers’ money. In the double whammy that hit the Senate – the fund issue and the pork barrel scam – lawmakers named oversight committees as a factor in the increase in the chamber’s budget over the years.

Senators and Senate insiders told Rappler that like a divisive bill, the proposal to cut down on the committees languished from one Congress to another.

Yet the controversies and leadership change in the 16th Congress revived the call to scrap bloated, redundant, and outdated oversight committees.

The multimillion-peso question is will the idea finally become reality?

‘Inherent function’

Different from permanent or regular committees, ad hoc or oversight committees are special panels that monitor the implementation of specific laws like the Clean Air Act and the Human Security Act.

They are created either by laws or resolutions and are mostly bicameral, including members from both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Most panels are required to submit reports to the President, to both houses of Congress, and to the Commission on Audit.

Sen Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III explained how the committees operate in the current set-up. He leads the oversight committee on Suffrage, and the regular committees on Electoral Reforms, and Games and Amusement.

“The regular Senate committee, when it calls for a hearing, tackles pending matters before it. What are these? It’s either a bill or a resolution referred to it. But in the implementation of existing laws, when there’s an issue or a controversy you want the public and the Senate to know, the background, that’s an oversight function.”

Pimentel believes that the Senate can do away with oversight committees. In a resolution he filed for a review of the oversight panels last February, he said this will save the Senate millions.

In the 15th Congress, the 35 oversight committees almost equaled the 39 regular Senate committees in number. Senate records obtained by Rappler show that in 2013, the total budget of oversight committees reached about P500 million.

In contrast, the United States Senate has only 20 committees, 68 subcommittees, 4 joint committees, and 4 special, select and other committees, according to its website. In the US system, the select and joint committees generally handle the oversight responsibilities.

Renato Bantug Jr, Senate executive director for legislation, said money and numbers are not the only issue with the oversight committees. He has worked in the Senate for 18 years.

“Even years ago, there was a question of do we really need these oversight committees because the existing committees inherently have these oversight functions already. The committee can already exercise oversight powers over the executive so why the need?”

Bantug though said that landmark laws like the Tax Reform Act require the creation of oversight committees.

“Since that practically revised the entire Internal Revenue Code of the Philippines, a decision was made to create a joint congressional oversight committee to oversee the implementation of the law. That I would feel is understandable since we practically revised the whole thing. We needed to see how the executive is proceeding in implementing the law.”

He said other major laws like the Anti-Money Laundering Act and the Electronic Commerce Act warranted the creation of oversight committees because these involved highly technical and legal issues.

For Bantug, oversight committees should then be the exception rather than the rule. “But through time, it became the norm. It became more frequent that’s why we really did have an increase in oversight committees.”

“Sometimes, some legislators will just know how to present their proposals well and they have that persuasive power to convince their colleagues that ‘I think we need an oversight committee for this.’”

Sotto: Pull plug on dying committees

While the oversight committees are supposed to be ad hoc, the problem is most of the laws creating them did not include a sunset provision or a clause spelling out their life span.

Some laws that did provide for a time limit allowed Congress to issue a resolution extending a committee’s life.

As a result, there is still an oversight committee on Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization even if the law was passed in 1997 or 16 years ago. Another example is the oversight committee on Official Development Assistance, a law created 17 years ago.

Sen Vicente “Tito” Sotto III is one of the most vocal advocates of a review of the oversight committees.

’Yung mga umabot na sa kanilang kamatayan ay dapat hayaan nang mamatay. Meron kasing mga oversight committee na 5 years, merong after so many number of years hanggang doon lang talaga ang buhay niya. Eh ang nangyari sa amin sa Senado, ine-extend namin by joint resolution.

(Those that already reached their death should already be allowed to die. There are oversight committees that have been around for 5 years, others for a number of years and their life can only be so long. But what happens with us in the Senate is we keep extending it by joint resolution.)

Before passing judgment on oversight committees, Sotto said the Senate must check what each panel’s functions, accomplishments, and budget are.

Former Sen Edgardo Angara agreed with Sotto. In media interviews, he said the budget of the panels can best be accounted for in relation to their output. Angara chaired the oversight committee on Science and Technology before ending his term.

Asked why Sotto did not push for a review when he was a Senate leader, he said, “It was awkward for me to question my colleagues. Majority Leader ka tapos kukuwestiyunin mo ang mga kasama mo tungkol dito? Ngayong ‘di na kami lider ng Senado, pwede na naming tanungin.”

(You’re the Majority Leader then you will question your colleagues about this? Now that we’re no longer Senate leaders, we can ask this.)

 

 

Budget of Oversight Committees Fiscal Year 2013
Oversight Committee onBudgetChairperson in 15th CongressCommittee Created by
Absentee Voting Act P10 million Defensor Santiago Law
Affordable Medicines Act P15 million Villar Law
Agrarian Reform P10 million Honasan Law
Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization P37.879 million Pangilinan Law
Anti-Money Laundering P15 million Guingona Law
Automated Election System P15 million Defensor Santiago Law
Bases Conversion P10 million A. Cayetano Resolution
Biofuels Act P5 million Osmeña Law
Civil Aviation P15 million Revilla Law
Clean Air Act P10 million Escudero Law
Clean Water Act P10 million P. Cayetano Law
Climate Change P15 million Legarda Resolution
Cooperatives P9 million Lapid Law
Dangerous Drugs Act P10 million Honasan Law
Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act P13.75 million Lacson Law
E-Commerce P6 million A. Cayetano Law
Economic Affairs P15 million Villar Resolution
Government Procurement P15 million Trillanes Resolution
Human Security Act P10 million Honasan Law
Intelligence Funds P16 million Lacson Resolution
Labor P28.328 million Estrada Law
Local Government P10 million Marcos Resolution
Official Development Assistance P15.825 million Recto Law
Overseas Workers Affairs P15 million Estrada Law
Power Commission P25 million Osmeña Law
Public Expenditures P18.234 million Drilon Law
Science and Technology P36 million Angara Law
Solid Waste Management P10 million Escudero Law
Special Purpose Vehicle Act P7 million Marcos Law
Suffrage P15 million Pimentel Resolution
Tax Reform Program P27.75 million Recto Law
Tourism P10 million Lapid Law
Visiting Forces Agreement P20 million Legarda Law
Source: Office of the Senate Secretary, Office of the Executive Director for Legislation
Note: No budget was allocated for the oversight committees on the ARMM Organic Act and the Chain Saw Act.


‘Form of entitlement, squabbling’

Sotto’s staunch ally, resigned Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, pointed out a peculiarity of oversight committees: they have lopsided budgets. The allocations range from P5 million to P37.879 million.

Regular committees have equal budgets, P17.352 million each in 2013, based on Senate records.

“Some oversight committees have bigger budgets than regular committees. This is due to the scope of work of the oversight committee, and the fact that even the budgetary allocation of some oversight committees are mandated by law, meaning the laws creating such oversight committees specify how much allocation the oversight committee gets each year,” Enrile said in a statement in February.

Back then, Enrile called for a moratorium on the creation of oversight committees after he drew flak over the Senate fund controversy. He said that the oversight committees more than doubled since 2010.

'REAL HEADACHE.' Sen Juan Ponce Enrile says oversight committees are a "real headache" for any Senate President because senators view them as "a form of entitlement." File photo by Senate PRIB/Joseph Vidal

His fierce rival, Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago, also suggested changes related to the panels. Just this week, Santiago said committee members’ honorarium is excessive.

READ: How much does a senator earn? 

“On the average, a senator is a member of 7 oversight committees. Thus, he receives P2.5 million annually in so-called extraordinary and miscellaneous expenses or EME …. I humbly propose that the EME for oversight committees should constitute no more than 50% of a senator’s salary,” Santiago said.  

Santiago heads the oversight committees on the Absentee Voting Act, and Anti-Money Laundering, and the regular committee on Constitutional Amendments.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Franklin Drilon also explained that senators only get the budget of one permanent committee even if they are the chairpersons of two to 3 regular committees. It is a different case for those who head more than one oversight committee because these panels have their individual budgets.

The issue also caught the attention of experts beyond the halls of Congress.

“Think about it. Legislators are not even supposed to be involved in implementing laws. Their role is to pass, not implement, laws,” former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno wrote in a January column for Business World.

“Most oversight committees even duplicate what standing committees do. For example, what can the Joint Committee on Public Expenditures do that the Senate Finance Committee or the House Appropriations Committee can’t do?”

Despite the criticism and suggestions, nothing came out of the proposals so far.

Pimentel’s resolution recommended abolishing the oversight committees and instead increasing the budget of regular committees to incorporate the oversight function in their work. He also proposed equal funding to avoid internal squabbling. Yet he said the Senate lacked the time to act on it.

Enrile cited a more complex reason. In his resignation speech in June, he admitted that politics plays a key role in the retention of the oversight committees.

“With the way the senators now view the chairmanships over these oversight committees as a form of entitlement, it was impossible for me to satisfy everyone …. Chairmanships over these oversight committees can be a real headache for any Senate President.”

Sen Antonio Trillanes IV, another Enrile critic, said politics also figures into the choice of committee chairmanships for both regular and oversight committees.

Most laws require that the chairman of the regular committee also head the corresponding oversight committee. Some laws authorize the Senate President and the House Speaker to designate the co-chairs of the oversight committee.

“Everything boils down to the preferences of the Senate President. They may use that seniority argument if it suits them. They will say you are an expert on a certain subject if they need to. Even if you’re new, they can give you a major committee and make certain justifications that you’re very well qualified,” Trillanes told Rappler.

“In the end, they can find a justification why you are placed there. If they can’t find any, they can always fall back to that discretion argument,” he added.

Trillanes heads the oversight committee on Government Procurement, and the regular committees on Amateur Sports Competitiveness, and Civil Service. 

LONGTIME CONCERN. Sen Franklin Drilon tells Rappler he has long been pushing for a review of the oversight committees.

Drilon: Yes to review

Beyond politics, procedural requirements are a challenge in dissolving oversight committees.

Sen Francis Escudero supports a review but said the Senate cannot act alone. He is the chairman of the regular committees on Environment, and Justice, and the oversight committees on Solid Waste Management Act, Clear Air Act, and Chain Saw Act.

“The problem is that most oversight committees are created by law, only a handful are by Senate resolution. So if we remove them, we have to amend the laws. That’s joint, not just the Senate but a House decision, too,” Escudero said.

Pimentel and Sotto are far from giving up. Sotto said that at the first caucus of the new Senate, he will call for rationalization to cut the oversight committees by half.                                             

Drilon, touted to be the next Senate President, said the two will not have a hard time. “I’ll support it. Review the oversight committees.”

“I was the one from the very start who kept on saying let’s review this, in caucuses. The study was not fully completed. We were working on this but the [fund] controversy broke out and we were not able to submit our study but that only indicates to you that even in the previous Congresses, we were already concerned about these oversight committees,” Drilon told Rappler.

For now, Drilon refused to go into details of the review. Enrile early on hinted that it will be a daunting but compelling task for the new Senate leadership.

“Perhaps, in due time, Sen Drilon will finally find a solution that will adequate satisfy the members of this chamber. More importantly, I hope such a solution will correct a rather unwieldy situation that has earned the criticism and disgust of the people.” – Rappler.com