Biggest hike yet only 5 execs present? House panel defers DPWH budget hearing

Among government agencies, the Department of Public Works and Highways received the biggest hike in the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 budget, yet only 5 of its top officials were physically present at the House of Representatives to defend their share of the pie.

Public Works Secretary Mark Villar was not even at the Batasan. He attended the budget hearing via the video conferencing app Zoom.

Roughly an hour into budget deliberations, House Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr asked how many undersecretaries and assistant secretaries were present at the visibly empty plenary hall.

Only two out of 6 undersecretaries and 3 out of 5 assistant secretaries were present. Abante was disappointed.

"The reason why the deliberation of the budget of the DPWH is being held in the plenary [was] because we would like the officials of the DPWH to be with us. Now, of course, Secretary Mark is a very good friend, and perhaps, if they could not be able to attend, then they should write the Committee of Appropriations," said Abante.

"Tayo naman (We, the lawmakers), we are being present here," he added.

Before the pandemic restricted social gatherings, congressional halls were typically packed with government officials, lawmakers, congressional and government staff, and the media during budget hearings.

When deliberations on the proposed 2021 spending program started at the House of Representatives, top officials were usually present physically, while the rest joined via Zoom.

Both Cabinet officials of the two departments scheduled for Thursday's budget hearings attended virtually. Unlike Villar, however, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Puyat sent the House panel a medical certificate attesting that she could not be physically present for the budget deliberations.

"For all you know, this is even livestreamed so the public will be able to know everything.…Siguro siya (Villar), puwedeng hindi present dito katulad sa kanina sa DOT, (Maybe it would be fine for Villar to not be here like at the budget hearing of DOT) but of course how many undersecretaries do we have?" Abante asked.

"And we only have two here. With due respect, mahirap po talagang pakinggan, makipag-usap nang mahusay dito (it's really hard to listen, let alone have smart discussions here) because – even the DICT has admitted – that our internet is very slow and it's hard to listen," said Abante before moving for the deferment of the budget hearing.

Rappler asked Villar and Build, Build, Build Chairperson Anna Mae Lamentillo about the low physical attendance of DPWH officials during the hearing, but our calls and messages were left unanswered.

DPWH's proposed 2021 budget is at P667.3 billion, which is 55% or P227 billion higher than its adjusted 2020 budget of P438.9 billion. Historically, public works budget deliberations have always been lengthy, given the parochial nature of some projects and in-depth discussions on controversial infrastructure programs.

The budget for the year before elections (in this case 2021) is often referred to as an "election year budget." National elections will be held in 2022, but funds for poll preparations are already included in the 2021 budget. In the past, congressional insertions in DPWH budgets had also been used by politicians to raise campaign funds and get more votes.

On Thursday, only 3 lawmakers were able to raise questions before the budget hearing was deferred. The new schedule has yet to be announced by the House appropriations panel. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.

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