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House leadership brouhaha sidelines budget woes | CMFR

House leadership brouhaha sidelines budget woes

Photo from ibon.org

ALL EYES WERE on the House of Representatives amid rumors of an ouster bid  against Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (1st Dist., Taguig City) because of complaints over the budget allocations for congressmen’s infrastructure projects. In July 2019, Cayetano and Rep. Lord Allan Velasco (Marinduque) had arrived at a term sharing agreement, in which Cayetano would yield the speakership to Velasco in October 2020. But it seemed that the former was not ready to give up the post.

Meanwhile, the House began deliberations on the proposed PHP4.5-trillion national budget for 2021. On Thursday, September 17, tension rose between the allies of Cayetano and Velasco during the DPWH budget briefing of the House appropriations committee.

Rep. Arnolfo Teves, Jr. (3rd Dist., Negros Oriental) questioned the “disparity” in the infrastructure fund share of each district, calling attention to the hefty allocations for the districts of Cayetano and his known ally, Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte (2nd Dist., Camarines Sur). Villafuerte, meanwhile, said that Teves’ line of questioning was an alleged move by Velasco’s camp to taint Cayetano’s leadership.

The squabble prompted presidential son and Deputy Speaker Paolo “Pulong” Duterte (1st Dist., Davao City) to threaten a House leadership coup. Sometime over the weekend, Rep. Duterte said in a Viber group of representatives that he would “ask the Mindanao bloc” to declare the House leadership vacant on Monday, September 21. But on Sunday, Duterte said that his threat of a House coup was a mere “expression of dismay” over the ongoing row. Despite the heated prelude, nothing happened during Monday’s session which lasted only 20 minutes.

Media  latched on to the story, giving the political kerfuffle banner treatment for at least three days. The exchange of claims between the opposing camps took up much of the coverage, leaving out the more important matter of the budget issues that still had to be resolved, among them the absence in it of funding for social amelioration, given the millions of workers loss of livelihood.

Reports did point out that the House row could delay the passage of the budget bill. But generally, media favored the political power play by providing more space and time on the Speakership brouhaha and sidelined discussion on questionable appropriations such as alleged pork insertions and the lack of funds for health.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from September 19  to september 23, 2020.

Derailed discussion

Media did ask Senate leaders for comment. President Vicente Sotto III warned in an Inquirer report published on September 21 that the budget might be delayed “if they do not settle their issues.” In an interview over ANC’s Headstart, Senator Franklin Drilon said that the power struggle would surely affect the budget timeline. “We cannot delay the budget for 2021 because of the situation we are in today,” he added.

Rep. Carlos Zarate (Bayan Muna Party-list) however said that the bone of contention between the quarreling parties is not the speakership issue. An Inquirer report on September 22 cited Zarate who pointed to the administration’s apparent “unequal distribution of pork slices” as the root cause of the House conflict.

Pork allegations

A report by the Manila Bulletin recalled that it was Sen. Panfilo Lacson who had flagged the “questionable appropriations” of up to P532.3 billion, saying this may be pork barrel funds . Early in September, Lacson said that the delay in the DPWH’s submission of its planned spending had prompted the budget department to include thousands of infrastructure projects that had already been funded and implemented in this year’s budget.

An in-depth report by Rappler published on September 5 looked into the staggering P16.44 billion allocated by the president for his pet project, the controversial anti-insurgency National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Zarate likened the budget allocation to a pork barrel for retired generals because it allows them “so much discretion” in spending the money.

Misallocated funds

A report by GMA News Online citing research group IBON Foundation noted that amid the pandemic, the proposed budget for infrastructure projects exceed allocations for health, social amelioration, and support for small businesses. IBON stressed that health and social protection should be prioritized as the government’s fiscal response is crucial to overcoming the pandemic and its impact on millions of displaced workers.

A Rappler Thought Leaders piece tagged the 2021 budget proposal as “Duterte’s worst budget proposal yet,” calling attention to the lack of much-needed economic aid and funds for remote learning which the schools are adopting without much support.

In its editorial on September 15, the Inquirer pointed out that despite the health crisis, health ranks only fifth out of the 10 departments with the biggest allocations in the 2021 budget. The Inquirer also flagged the PHP4.5 billion intelligence and confidential funds of the president. The pandemic has demonstrated the direct harm the low priority given to health in the 2019 budget is likely to cause. The DOH could not even identify the funds needed to provide enough PPEs for medical frontliners. The budget process is an expression of the government’s priorities. There are few things more important than the passage of the budget bill. Media cannot afford to be distracted by the cheap theatrics of politicians and must keep their eyes on the ball.