MANILA, Philippines — Whether they call them “amendments” or “errata,” any change to the approved version of the 2021 general appropriations bill (GAB) is a violation of the Constitution, Sen. Panfilo Lacson told the House leadership on Monday.
The Senate’s pork hunter chided Rep. Eric Yap, House appropriations panel chair, for his remarks on Saturday that all amendments introduced by a small committee to the approved GAB were mere agency-initiated corrections to the original proposal.
“No amount of technicalities and sweet-talk maneuvers can correct a flawed budget that is supposed to address the problems and concerns of more than 100 million Filipinos,” Lacson said in a statement.
‘Infirm, error-filled budget’
“[Yap’s claim] that the ‘errata,’ aka amendments, will come from the implementing agencies and not from the individual House members will further muddle an already constitutionally infirm and error-filled budget measure,” he said.
“Why? The authorization part of the four-phase budget process is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress, and the executive should deal only with budget preparation and execution,” Lacson said.
The four phases are budget preparation, legislation, execution, and evaluation.
The House passed the P4.5-trillion spending bill on third and final reading on Friday before suspending session. But in line with customary practice in the 301-member chamber, a small committee was formed to make last-minute changes to the bill before transmitting it to the Senate.
Yap said the small committee composed of members handpicked by the new House leadership under Speaker Lord Allan Velasco was not permitted to make last-minute pork insertions to the GAB, contrary to insinuations by senators.
“These are all agency-initiated. Which is what I always emphasize because we keep getting beaten up in Congress. We’re always accused of inserting pork. I did not allow any congressman to insert pork,” he said.
“All these errata are all from agencies. Nothing came from a congressman,” Yap said.
Amendment going on
But Lacson was skeptical, noting that “as of today, [the House] continues to tackle amendments via the so-called small group.”
He said Article VI, Section 26 of the 1987 Constitution was “unequivocally clear, regardless of where the amendments will come from.”
“The Constitution does not say that it is applicable if they are only rushing errata: ‘Upon the last reading of a bill, no amendment thereto shall be allowed, and the vote thereon shall be taken immediately thereafter, and the yeas and nays entered in the Journal,’” Lacson said.
“It is time that we correct the mindset of the so-called representatives of the people in this regard,” he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Senate leadership would, for now, “presume regularity” in the P20 billion worth of amendments introduced through the small committee.
But that, he said, would depend on whether “they manifested to do that before they approved on third reading, subject to style.”
“It means they approved it in principle” before approving the GAB on third reading, Sotto said in a Viber message to reporters.
“As they submit it to us, we will of course presume regularity,” he said.
‘Our job is done’
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House ways and means committee, said the largest chunk of the P20 billion in “institutional amendments,” P5.5 billion, would augment the P2.5 billion approved on Friday for the purchase of vaccines for COVID-19.
Other amounts approved included P4 billion for the Department of Labor and Employment to aid workers displaced by the pandemic; P2 billion for pandemic assistance to afflicted families; P2 billion for the Department of Health’s hospital improvement and equipment program; P2 billion for the military to buy C-130 aircraft; and P2 billion for the Department of the Interior and Local Government to purchase vehicles for the Philippine National Police.
Salceda said the House version of the GAB was “virtually ready for submission to the Senate,” but a committee headed by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman would continue to accept and review agency-initiated amendments and look for ways to allocate money to unfunded programs.
“But as far as the House version of the 2021 budget [is concerned], I would consider it to have been completed, substantially completed … Basically our job is done,” he told reporters.
Any individual amendments may be tackled in the Senate-House conference, he added.
Salceda said the P5.5-billion additional fund for COVID-19 vaccines was approved by the small committee with guidance from Velasco.
He said the increased allocation for the vaccines could be used to inoculate 9.4 million elderly Filipinos and 6.4 million others with existing conditions.
The P5.5-billion increase for the vaccine fund, he said, could be sourced from the P20-billion budget of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund.
“[A] pandemic is defined under [the law that created the fund] as a disaster,” Salceda said.
He said the P16.4-billion budget of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict was “discussed, and it was affirmed.”
The Makabayan bloc in the House said on Saturday that the allocation for the task force was a “lump-sum appropriation,” essentially “pork.”
—With a report from Julie M. Aurelio
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