Budget Watch

After Cayetano move, impossible to ratify 2021 budget on time – Lacson

JC Gotinga

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After Cayetano move, impossible to ratify 2021 budget on time – Lacson

PANFILO LACSON. Senator Panfilo Lacson presides over on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, the Committee on Finance Subcommittee C hybrid hearing on the proposed P344.5 million budget of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DBB) and the P2.75 billion of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) for 2021. Photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

Senator Panfilo Lacson says the House of Representatives' postponement of its final reading of the budget bill was 'not a good judgment call,' and may lead to a reenacted 2020 budget

It has become virtually impossible for Congress to ratify the 2021 national budget bill on time, and the 2020 national budget is now “as good as reenacted,” Senator Panfilo Lacson said on Wednesday, October 7.

The House of Representatives had prematurely suspended its session on Tuesday, October 6, and deferred the 3rd and final reading of its version of the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) by a month.

Because of that, Lacson said there would be too little time left for the Senate to finish scrutinizing the budget bill in time for President Rodrigo Duterte to sign it before the end of the year.

This would force the government to operate under a reenacted 2020 national budget at least during the first weeks of the new year. The country would then miss out on appropriations in the 2021 budget measure geared toward responding to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

“Wala na, good as reenacted na ‘yung budget natin. There is no way for the Senate na matapos ‘yung budget, and even Malacañang, na ma-approve ‘yung budget before the year-end,” Lacson told reporters in a web conference.

(That’s it, our budget is as good as reenacted. There is no way for the Senate to finish the budget, and even for Malacañang to approve the budget before the year-end.)

The Senate had expected the House to pass its version of the 2021 GAB before the two chambers of Congress suspend session from October 15 to November 15. But on Tuesday, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano moved to approve the budget bill on 2nd reading and then immediately suspend session, a week ahead of schedule. Cayetano’s allies in the House majority backed his move.

Senators counted on receiving the House’s final version of the budget bill by October 14 so they could begin working on it during the break from session. With the House’s move, the Senate would be receiving the bill a month later, after session resumes on November 16.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and finance committee chief Senator Sonny Angara immediately expressed concern that this would result in delays in the budget process.

“First, sayang ‘yung isang buwan. Kasi kung na-transmit sa amin ‘yan ng October 14, sinisigurado namin ‘yan, mayroong ample time ‘yung Malacañang to study, veto, and approve the GAA (General Appropriations Act) ng 2021,” said Lacson, one of the Senate’s toughest budget watchers.

(First, that’s one month wasted. Because, if it were transmitted to us on October 14, we guarantee that there would have been ample time for Malacañang to study, veto, and approve the General Appropriations Act for 2021.)

Normally, after the arduous and lengthy process of debates and scrutiny of the budget bill on the Senate floor, both chambers of Congress reconcile differences in their versions of the measure before submitting it to Malacañang, which then studies it before the President signs or vetoes it.

‘Not a good judgment call’

The Senate and the House observe “interparliamentary courtesy” – each chamber refrains from commenting on actions and decisions of the other.

Sotto and Angara both declined to comment on the House’s sudden suspension of session and consequent deferment of its 3rd and final reading of the 2021 GAB. They would only comment on its ramifications on the Senate’s work.

“My disappointment is that the timetable as far as the Senate is concerned is going to be very, very tight,” Sotto said.

Lacson, however, expressed disagreement with the House’s move.

“I don’t think it’s a good judgment call because we cannot sacrifice the national budget, because it’s a paramount national interest, isn’t it?” Lacson said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Whatever internal political issues House members “squabble” about, they should have left the national budget bill out of it, he added.

“No matter how we look at what happened, talagang related sa speakership ‘yung nangyayari sa budget measure natin ngayon (what’s happening to our budget measure now is really related to the speakership),” Lacson said.

Cayetano’s surprise move on Tuesday effectively shut the door on his rival for the speakership, Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco – at least temporarily.

Despite an earlier “term-sharing” agreement, Cayetano has refused to automatically cede the House speakership to Velasco unless he shores up support from majority of the chamber. A handover was supposedly set for October 14, but with the session suspended then, it is difficult to imagine Velasco managing a takeover anytime soon.

Senators: Difficult, but we’ll try our best

Cayetano tried to reassure the senators – and the public – that his move would not necessarily delay the national budget. He said House lawmakers will work during the session break to insert amendments and smoothen out the bill so the Senate would have less work to do when it receives the final House version of the measure after November 16 – when session resumes.

Lacson said this would not change anything for the Senate, which would still sift through every item in the budget bill to weed out questionable insertions. It would take up the rest of the year’s working days, even if the Senate adds session days to its regular schedule.

Sotto echoed Lacson’s worry.

“We’re really staring at the possibility of a reenacted budget. Isang buwan eh, ‘yung delay sa ine-expect namin (That’s one month, the delay in what we were expecting),” Sotto told reporters in a separate web conference.

Senator Joel Villanueva said marathon “overnight sessions” would be inevitable if the Senate is to meet the deadline.

“So what are you saying, you are giving us two weeks to tackle the entire national budget of every single agency and department? Parang napakahirap po (That seems very difficult),” Villanueva said in a media interview on Wednesday.

Angara was a little optimistic, saying there is still a chance the budget bill can be passed on time if, as Cayetano had suggested, all parts of the process are fast-tracked and both chambers of Congress concentrate on it moving forward.

“We’ll try our best…. If we shortcut other timeframes, then we can recover the time lost,” Angara told reporters. – 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.