By Charmaine A. Tadalan and Gillian M. Cortez, Reporters
and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza
THE PHILIPPINE government will probably operate under a re-enacted budget again next year amid a leadership squabble at the House of Representatives, which will delay the expansion of some key services including the battle against a coronavirus pandemic, senators said.
“There’s no way for the Senate to finish the budget and for Malacañang to enact it before the year ends,” Senator Panfilo M. Lacson told an online news briefing in mixed English and Filipino on Wednesday.
Failure to pass the budget bill on time means the government must use the same amount of funds provided under the P4.1-trillion appropriations for this year during the first quarter of next year.
It also means new government projects will be delayed and some key services will be affected until the new budget measure is signed.
But an analyst warned the ongoing tensions in the House “will surely have an impact” on the private sector, saying “any uncertainty in leadership creates a certain degree of uncomfort on the business sector.”
“While determination and stability of leadership in any branch of the government is important, priority should be the work and service to the Filipino people,” Antonio A. Ligon, a law and business professor at the De La Salle University, said in a Viber message.
“The budget relates to the allocation of the taxes we are paying and entrusting to the government. It should be given higher importance than a squabble for leadership,” he added.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved next year’s P4.5-trillion national budget on second reading after Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano, who has rejected a term-sharing deal he agreed to last year, moved to terminate debates and sessions until Nov. 16.
This prevents his rival — Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Q. Velasco — from trying to take over the post under a gentleman’s agreement brokered by President Rodrigo R. Duterte between the lawmakers. Mr. Velasco was supposed to take control of the speakership on Oct. 14.
Under the pact, Mr. Cayetano would be Speaker in the first 15 months of the 18th Congress, and Mr. Velasco would serve for the remaining 21 months.
Congressmen voted through loud ayes and nays on Zoom Cloud Meetings, but other lawmakers including Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, who supports Mr. Velasco, claimed their microphones had been muted during the session.
Some party-list congressmen earlier said legislative proceedings had been hijacked, noting that few lawmakers were allowed to go to the House plenary hall in Quezon City. Majority of House members attend sessions via Zoom amid a coronavirus pandemic.
‘GOOD AS RE-ENACTED’
Instead of continuing plenary debates on the budget, Mr. Cayetano created a small committee that will consolidate proposed amendments during the break. Congress was supposed to suspend sessions on Oct. 17 and resume on Nov. 16 under its legislative calendar.
Mr. Lacson said congressmen had been given until Nov. 5 to propose changes to the budget bill. “If they have until Nov. 5 to submit amendments, our budget is good as re-enacted,” said Mr. Lacson, who is vice chairman of the finance committee.
Based on the original timeline, the House was expected to pass the budget before the scheduled Oct. 16 session suspension and transmit it to the Senate during the break. This will allow the Senate to start plenary debates when sessions resume on Nov. 16.
“How will that happen if it was approved on second reading, and then they form small group committees? Of course there will be proposed amendments,” Mr. Lacson said. Printing the budget bill takes as long as a week, he added.
The budget would most likely be re-enacted unless the House adopts the version of the bill approved by the Senate, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III told a separate news briefing.
Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, who heads the finance committee, said he was considering cutting down processes such as shortening bicameral conference committee meetings to work around the month-long delay that the speakership row had caused.
“We’ll try our best, but again there are some concerns because we might be losing some time going forward,” he said at a separate news briefing.
Meanwhile, the palace said President Rodrigo R. Duterte won’t intervene in the leadership wrangling at the House of Representatives, which it said was unlikely to delay the passage of next year’s national budget.
“In an issue such as this, there is no judge,” presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque told CNN Philippines on Wednesday. “Even the courts can’t intervene because the organization and leadership of the House is a purely internal matter. And the Executive cannot really intervene in the choice of who the next Speaker will be.”
“What is important is that the House has already commenced its deliberation on the budget,” Mr. Roque said. That means the Senate can start acting on the budget bill, he added.
He said the House was expected to approve the budget on third and final reading once sessions resume next month.
Mr. Roque called the House approval of the budget bill an “astute” move that was legal. “It is not illegal, but I would think it’s a very astute political move.”
Mr. Atienza on Wednesday said some lawmakers could re-convene and elect Mr. Velasco as Speaker because the suspension called by Mr. Cayetano was illegal.
“The move to suspend the session has no validity,” he said in a Viber call, adding that Mr. Velasco’s allies had been muted on Zoom to silence objections.
“The vote should be clear, fair and transparent,” Mr. Atienza said. “It’s a clear violation of the House rule.” He said he would attend sessions if one is called during the one-month break.