RH budget cut exposes problematic lawmaking in PH

MANILA, Philippines – The bicameral conference committee for the national budget – the small group that decides final realignments in government funds – is not for the uninitiated.

The budget bill is a thick document that details how much money goes where, and a mix of appropriations that they can and cannot touch, such as the contraceptives fund and the debt appropriations respectively.

How exactly the P1-billion fund for a program meant to provide free contraceptives to poor Filipino couples was removed has yet to be explained.

It makes up less than 0.04% of the total P3.002-trillion approved budget for 2016, but it exposes a big problem in lawmaking in the Philippines: key decisions are made behind closed doors – not in open plenary – and often by a very few people.

Senator Pia Cayetano, the author of the reproductive health (RH) bill in the Senate, put the blame squarely on Senate finance committee chairman Senator Legarda. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad also categorically said the the fund was "deducted in the Senate."

Legarda maintained that "the whole budgetary process was done in the most transparent and inclusive manner."

But at least 3 members of the bicameral conference committee do not know that the contraceptives fund was removed: Senator Teofisto Guingona III (who Cayetano said did not know about the cut), Senator Ralph Recto, and another who spoke to Rappler but refused to be named.

According to Senator Vicente Sotto III, a member of the bicameral conference committee, the budget cut was proposed by the Senate legislative budget research monitoring office. Sotto, a known critic of the RH law, denied talks that he was behind it.

In a television interview, Legarda said they decided to take out the budget with the assurance that the cut would not affect the program, since the department would have more than enough savings from the previous year.

It is not clear who else approved the budget cut at the level of the bicameral conference committee, a movement that senators and representatives said they were unaware of when they ratified the report in plenary. 

Legarda said the fund would be a source for budget increases of state universities and colleges and other government agencies. Part of the fund was also realigned within the health department, according to the senator. (READ: DBM: Enough funds in 2016 budget for RH law)


One-on-one meetings?


It is not the first government program to lose its funding upon the discretion of the bicameral conference committee. But Health Sectary Janette Garin, a former lawmaker who led the battle for RH law, called attention to it and rallied fellow advocates

Senator Recto said there are lessons to be learned. The proceedings can no longer rely too much on the chairmen – a statement that echoes talk among lawmakers that the call was made by Legarda and House appropriations chairman Davao City Representative Isidro Ungab. 

"There should be a better way of doing the budget, [the budget cut on contraceptives is] teaching us a lesson," Recto said.

"In the future, in the bicam, 'di na p'wede 'yung small group na we leave it to both chairmen.... Every member of the bicam should take an active vote," he said. (In the future, in the bicam, we can't afford the small groups, where we leave it to both chairmen.... Every member of the bicam should take an active vote.)

Bicam members cannot oppose a budget movement they do not know about. 

Recto said it was unnecessary to cut the budget for contraceptives, but admitted that he did not pay attention to its funding when he attended the last bicam meeting that lasted for about 30 minutes. He had other matters in mind: the budget of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program and the Land Bank, to name a few.

Another member, who refused to be named, said: "I was as surprised as anyone else…. I would have opposed it if I knew."

Ironically, majority of the members of the bicameral conference committee, including Legarda, voted to approve the RH law.

Sources: Interview, lawmakers' votes on RH bill, various news reports 

Where are the minutes?

Former Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, the main author of RH law in the House of Representatives, blamed it on horse-trading between the two chairmen. 

"Humingi kayo ng transcript ng deliberations, walang maipapakita sa inyo sapagkat walang deliberations. Ang nangyari, meeting ng dalawang chairman, nag-horse-trading doon," Lagman said, referring to Legarda and Ungab.

(Ask for a transcript of the deliberations. They can't show you any because there were no deliberations. What happened was at the meeting of the two chairmen, there was horse-trading there.)

According to the secretary of the Senate finance committee, deliberations on the budget bill happened on two dates: December 1 at the Senate, and December 9 at the House.

Recto said that, usually, there are "negotiations in between" bicam meetings, after which the chairmen consult with the members. But the senator said that for the 2016 budget, he was not consulted at all.

Even though he felt the bicam meetings were more of a "formality," he still attended both. He said "nothing substantive was discussed" during the first meeting "except to adopt both chairmen to discuss differences," while he attended the second meeting to raise a few questions.  

In the end, he did not sign the bicam report because he was not satisfied with it. 

Guingona, chair of the Senate committee on health, also did not know about the cut, according to Cayetano. Based on records, he did not attend any of the meetings. 

The table below shows the attendance of the lawmakers in the meetings, based on records:

Other budget issues

Legarda denied one-on-one meetings with Ungab. "Bicameral meets would always be in front of the director-general of the Senate legislative budget research monitoring office and staff of that office, my Senate staff, House of Representatives budget office and staff," she told Rappler.

"It was not a unilateral act on my part but all the bicam members from both houses of Congress, supported by their respective technical staff," Legarda said in an earlier statement.

But Cayetano said the budget cut was not specified in the bicam report that they ratified. It only became apparent in the General Appropriations Act already signed by President Benigno Aquino III.

She said it's an ethical issue that needs the attention of all lawmakers.

"We cannot do our job well if we cannot trust that the committee that we have empowered to represent us in a bicameral conference will not give us the accurate information. This is a really horrible precedent," Cayetano said. 

For now, the health department's family planning program will have to depend on different fund sources to provide the RH needs of the poorest of the poor in the country.

A repeat of the budget cut in 2017 would be critical for the department, Garin said, but advocates vowed to watch closely the next budget process – as close as they kept watch of the RH law and its decade-long struggle in Congress. – with reports from Patty Pasion/Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.