AS EARLY as 2008, President Benigno Aquino III was “completely aware” that converting funds into “savings” in mid-year or realigning them outside of the congressional appropriations law was illegal and even drafted a bill about it, said critics who successfully challenged his Disbursement Acceleration Program before the Supreme Court.
UP professor emeritus and former national treasurer Leonor Briones said Aquino, then a senator, had been thoroughly briefed on the constitutionality of budget appropriations as he had attended a briefing administered by the Social Watch Philippines, of which Briones was lead convenor.
“Since 2006, the SWP advocated for greater transparency and accountability in government and served as a budget watchdog for media, lawmakers and the public,” she said.
“Then Senator Aquino attended the SWP budget briefing intended for lawmakers and this prompted him to file a bill seeking to outlaw the funds impoundment,” Briones told the Manila Standard.
In the second session of the 14th Congress, Aquino principally authored Senate Bill 3121 entitled “The Budget Impoundment Control Act” that sought to limit the discretionary powers of the President to realign and defer releases of funds.
Aquino’s bill sought to prohibit the President from “usurping Congress’ power of the purse.”
In declaring the DAP unconstitutional, the Supreme Court said the President has “usurped the power of the purse” when he realigned budgets to co-equal branches and brought them outside of the Executive branch.
“There is nothing wrong in realigning funds per se. What is unconstitutional is the cross-border or doing ‘over the bakod’ from the Executive branch to Congress or Commission on Audit,” Briones said.
“We’re going to examine the decision in detail but several issues are clearly unconstitutional; the separation of the branches of government, cross-border transfers of funds, funding of items not in the General Appropriations Act, the use of unprogrammed funds, and how “savings” were defined and declared,” Briones said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said Aquino, who then belonged to the opposition bloc against former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was among those who condemned the budget impoundment, a practice that his administration has continued.
“Noynoy Aquino and we in the opposition were together in denouncing the impoundment of funds because like in our case, the Arroyo administration withheld his pork barrel funds and realigned them elsewhere,” Colmenares said.
“What Aquino denounced then as immoral, abuse and misuse of powers, Aquino was also doing now in the case of the illegal DAP,” Colmenares said. “President Aquino from the start knew that the DAP was illegal.”
The explanatory note of Aquino’s bill cited Article VI Section 25 (1) of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that “Congress may not increase the appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of the government as specified in the budget. The form, content and manner of preparation of the budget shall be prescribed by law.”
“Clearly then, while it is the President who proposes the national budget, it is the Congress that prescribes the form, content and manner of budget preparation albeit subject to the limitations found in the Constitution,” Aquino said.
“Hence, as the ‘power of the sword’ belongs to the President, the ‘power of the purse’ resides in Congress,” Aquino said in the bill.
In practice however, Aquino said the President still wields considerable control over public spending through the exercise of budget impoundment.
He defined impoundment as referring to the refusal of the President, for whatever reason, to release funds appropriated by Congress.
“It is the failure to spend or obligate budget authority of any type,” Aquino said.
While its constitutional conferment is not expressed, he said the Administrative Code has given the President specific authority, when in his judgment the public interest requires and upon due notice to the head of office concerned, to suspend or otherwise stop further expenditure of funds allotted for any agency.
“Of recent times however, this presidential prerogative has been misused and abused, and has emasculated Congress’ authority to check the President’s discretionary power to spend public funds. In effect, the President seems to have a vast and unbridled control over the national budget,” Aquino said.
“This bill seeks to increase congressional oversight and to limit executive influence over specific appropriations in the General Appropriations Act. This undertaking is urgently needed in the light of the current economic crisis confronting the whole world, the consequences of which are deemed to severely affect our country in the coming years. For these reasons, the approval of this bill is being earnestly requested,” Aquino said.
Aquino sought a penalty of not less than P500,000 and perpetual disqualification from office for those who would violate the law.
Aquino’s bill did not muster enough support from his colleagues and did not pass Senate scrutiny, however.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) secretary general Renato Reyes citeed the same bill to prove that Aquino had not acted in good faith in implementing the DAP.
“Once upon a time, Senator Noynoy Aquino filed a bill opposing DAP-like practices that gave too much power to the President... It proves that he wasn’t acting in good faith when he implemented the DAP. The irony here is that despite filing a bill, Aquino did exactly what GMA [Arroyo] did when he became president. And what he did may be even worse. There’s no good faith here,” Reyes said.
The Palace has remained unapologetic for disbursing funds through the DAP, saying this was done in good faith.