RH Law Budget Cut: Ambushed and Out of the Loop
THE SLASHING last December of the Department of Health’s billion-peso budget for family planning commodities caught reproductive health advocates off-guard. DOH Secretary Janette Garin said she herself was unaware of the cut and only learned of it on January 4. She said the cut was made during the deliberations of the bicameral conference committee on the 2016 national budget.
The reports on the cut by the news media did not address an equally significant issue that, if only journalists had looked closer, could have helped in averting it or, at the very least, educated the public: the budget approval process in both houses of Congress.
Instead, the coverage focused on the complaints of those who disapproved of the budget cut and the statements of those who defended the decision. The reports cited the exchange of views as follows:
Senator Pia Cayetano, principal sponsor of the RH law and de facto leader of those who opposed the cut, said she and Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography, were kept in the dark. Later reports revealed that Guingona was part of the bicameral conference committee that deliberated on the budget.
Former Albay Representative Edcel Lagman alleged that the budget cut was decided only by Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, and Davao City Representative Isidro Ungab, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations. Lagman claimed that no minutes of the deliberations were made, suggesting that the cut was the result of horse-trading between Legarda and Ungab.
Legarda, a known supporter of the RH law, said it was done to augment the budget of other agencies such as the Department of National Defense. After all, she said, the DOH can still use its unspent budget of PHP 2.3 billion intended for the second half of 2015.
However, Garin said the amount cited by Legarda had already been spent. The department’s existing budget, she explained, is not flexible and cannot be allocated for the acquisition of family planning commodities.
According to Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, the basis for the reduction was the temporary restraining order on the procurement of contraceptives issued by the Supreme Court in June 2015. Contrary to Legarda’s explanation, Sotto said the scrapped budget will be allocated to state universities and colleges.
The national budget can be a complicated animal, too dense to be understood easily and appreciated by ordinary citizens and even by journalists, particularly those who don’t cover the Congressional beat. The complex nature of national budgeting and the process of approving the budget is one of the reasons why the coverage is often too insider based or utterly clueless, leaving the public uninformed. Reports tend to merely cite quotes from public sources without question or explanation. As a result, the reports fail to point out inconsistencies as well as flaws in the process.
Limited to recording the statements of officials, the media reports on the DOH budget cut failed to detail the process of budget approval in Congress. These did not clarify who the members of the bicameral panel were, and why some senators and congressmen did not know about the cut despite having ratified the bicam committee report in the plenary.
For instance, a “flow chart” that traces the steps that Congress takes to get the annual budget out for the public to appreciate and how well their elected officials are doing this most important task would have been quite helpful. But CMFR could not find any such chart or infographic in the media reports. The reports did not even review the reasons for budget cuts — in this as well as in previous pieces of legislation.
Legarda insisted that the corresponding changes were indicated in the bicameral conference committee report that was distributed to the senators. But the press failed to track the changes in allocations and the amendments to show the modifications made by the committee.
Out of the Loop
While Senate and House hearings are open to the public, bicameral meetings are held behind closed doors, with only a few members tasked to deliberate on certain bills before submitting a final report to the plenary for ratification. During these meetings, members of the committee reconcile any differences in their respective versions of the bill being deliberated upon.
The closed nature of these meetings makes them prone to manipulation. For instance, it was during the bicameral conference committee hearings in 2012 that Sotto allegedly proposed the last-minute insertion of the online libel clause into the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Political maneuvers like this have become so common and accepted that former Bayan Muna Partylist Representative Teddy Casino and former Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond Palatino filed House Bill 6651, or the Bicameral Meeting Transparency Act of 2012.The bill seeks to allow the public, the media, and lawmakers who are not part of the bicameral committee to attend the meetings.
But the bill has not yet been signed into law, keeping the public and the press out of the loop. Thus, media reports have largely depended on statements issued by legislators after the bicameral proceedings.
It is understandable for journalists to get stymied by rules and traditions such as those practiced by bicameral committees but it is also their duty and responsibility to exert more effort in reporting the policies and laws — from the draft stage to the enactment stage – that have a profound impact on the public. Right now, such journalistic dedication and doggedness are perhaps the only means of thwarting this type of congressional ambush.