Pass the budget

Pass the budget

Wrangling over public funds, it seems, has always brought out the worst in lawmakers. The Supreme Court prohibited pork barrel allocations in the annual national appropriation, following the corruption scandal involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund. The SC ruling, however, has not stopped lawmakers from finding creative ways of using people’s money to dispense political patronage and finance their pet projects and programs.

With the general elections just a year and a half away, such funds for patronage become even more important. Lawmakers can tear at each other’s throats for their share of the annual appropriation. This is the picture that is emerging as the House of Representatives, from which funding measures emanate, remains locked in a leadership dispute while the members bicker over what some decry as the inequitable distribution of funds for congressional districts under the proposed budget for 2021.

Yesterday, with neither of the rivals for the speakership appearing to budge from their positions, President Duterte called Congress to a special session next week to finish the 2021 General Appropriations Act for his review and signature.

The President made the move after Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano abruptly suspended the session last Tuesday, with the House passing the budget bill only on second reading. Cayetano has given assurance that the budget measure will be passed on time. But the five-week break ensures that there will be no session on Oct. 14 – the date when he is supposed to hand over the reins of the chamber to Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco under a term-sharing “gentleman’s agreement” brokered by President Duterte himself last year.

Senators warned that the consequent delay would likely lead to a reenacted budget, which is prone to corruption. Cayetano’s opponents in the chamber, for their part, pointed out that the five-week adjournment of session without the consent of the Senate specifically violated Article 6, Section 16(5) of the Constitution.

Filipinos can only shake their heads in dismay over the latest unsurprising intramurals in the House. The worry, however, is that funding for responding to the COVID crisis will be derailed by the House brawl. With the President calling a special session, the budget process will now have to proceed. A harried, frustrated nation will be watching, and expecting lawmakers to buckle down to work.