The deliberations on the 2018 national budget are turning into an emotional battle between the Senate and the House of Representatives.
A clash of principles between the two chambers of Congress came to a boil on Friday as Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said they would take the hard line and insist on certain allotments in the House version of the proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2018.
Alvarez’s warning to the Senate raised the possibility of a reenacted budget, casting a pall on bicameral discussions on the tabled P3.767 trillion appropriations. Last year’s budget amounted to P3.35 trillion.
Disagreements over some items, including the Senate’s move to cut P50.7 billion from the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for right-of-way (ROW) acquisitions, have threatened to derail the talks.
Another point of contention is the Senate’s realignment of the Philippine National Police’s P900-million drug campaign budget, as well as the Department of the Interior and Local Government’s P500 million for its own drug program, to housing for cops and soldiers.
“We in the House of Representatives have discussed that we will take a hard stance on what we have agreed upon, because what we want to happen is what we approved in the House of Representatives,” Alvarez said in radio interview on dzMM.
“If we do not come to an agreement, then let us just reenact the budget. Tabla-tabla na lang (We will just square with each other),” he said.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said it was “perfectly” within the prerogatives of House lawmakers to stick to their guns on the budget issue.
The only way to prevent a reenacted budget, he said, is to come up with an agreement during the bicameral discussions.
“If we don’t want a reenacted budget, then an agreement must be reached somehow and sometime soon,” Pimentel said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto also said on Friday that a reenacted budget would “not be good for the country.”
“I’m sure it will not be difficult to come to terms with the House,” Recto told reporters, adding that Alvarez was only taking a negotiating posture.
The House leader said a reenacted budget would be to the advantage of the Duterte administration.
“[With a reenacted budget], they will be able to program whatever they want,” Alvarez said, referring to the executive branch.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, vice chair of the Senate committee on finance, proposed the budget cut for ROW acquisitions, as well as P18.389 billion from the DPWH’s P598-billion budget for 2018.
“The congressmen should first look at the cuts and examine them, instead of expressing alarm and objecting violently to the same,” Lacson said.
“There’s only one obvious reason why they are alarmed. While they shout to high heavens that the budget has no pork anymore, my cuts, albeit unintended, hit their projects,” he added.
Lacson said the committee had been asking the DPWH since October to disaggregate the ROW and civil works cost in their proposed infrastructure projects for next year in compliance with the law, which disallows civil works to start unless ROW issues are resolved.
“Save for P11.38 billion, where they submitted a list of settled ROW issues, they failed to justify the rest of the P62.1 billion,” he said.
On Thursday, members of the House and the Senate met as a bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences in each chamber’s version of the proposed budget for 2018.
Because of the disagreements, however, the bicameral committee created two small groups to discuss the contentious provisions and to arrive at a compromise.
Both chambers must pass the budget before the end of year. Failing so, the current budget will be reenacted.
A reenacted budget has historically given the sitting President wider latitude to spend funds already appropriated in the current year, automatically appearing as savings.
The last day of session of Congress for 2017 is on Dec. 13.