President Rodrigo Duterte accused senators Tuesday night of threatening to cut the budgets of Cabinet secretaries who do not attend Senate hearings and challenged them to a “showdown” even as Senate President Vicente Sotto III immediately denied the Chief Executive’s accusation.
Sotto said when a Cabinet member does not attend the budget deliberations in plenary, they simply call their budget when they are present. “[There’s] no such thing as cutting the budget because of nonattendance,” Sotto said.
“That’s the trouble of not calling a regular LEDAC,” Sotto added, referring to the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council. “Rumors become information.”
In his late night public address Tuesday, the President said senators were threatening the Cabinet secretaries with their respective agencies’ budget due to their absence in Senate investigations.
“You threaten the budget of different agencies of the Executive because the officials refuse to attend your hearings. This is really an abuse of democracy. This separation of powers, co-equal and everything; and they threatened to paralyze the government,” Duterte said.
“Reduce the budget by one third, I challenge you, do it. You people are smart. As for me, I’m ordinary, my grade was 75. But if your brains can handle it, go ahead, I challenge you,” Duterte said.
The President even told senators they can remove the allocation for the Office of the President but said that at the end of the day, everything would still be up for his approval.
“Give the Office of the President zero budget. Come on. Do you think your money will reach you without going through me first? What if I don’t release [it]?” he said.
“Tit-for-tat. No threats, just do it. Let’s have a showdown,” he said.
The President can veto items in the budget which he disagrees with before the measure is signed into law.
At a forum Wednesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said senators are unlikely to pass a reenacted 2022 budget, after the President dared them to make good on their alleged threats to slash the budgets of certain agencies.
Roque said the senators would not dare to challenge Duterte’s call, saying “it’s election time and these lawmakers have personal stakes in the 2022 budget.”
“They will have to pass it because they need all the resources that they can get for the elections,” Roque added.
The President’s latest outburst came after he ordered members of his Cabinet not to attend Senate investigations into the government’s COVID-19 response.
On Tuesday night, Duterte also threatened to withhold the disbursement of funds under next year’s national budget, after accusing lawmakers of trying to paralyze the government with decreased allocations.
The President’s threats came as the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee continued its inquiry into the alleged irregularities in the multi-billion-peso purchase of personal protective equipment in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sotto said some people were giving the President the wrong impression.
“I don’t know who,” he said, adding that Cabinet members usually attend budget hearings to explain their proposed spending plans.
Roque, meanwhile, expressed optimism that Congress will exhaust all efforts to pass the proposed 2022 budget on time.
“If they’re not able to pass it on time, the fault will lie with Congress and not the President. So, I think… they will do everything to pass it,” Roque said.
Also on Tuesday, Duterte said he is open to having the Office of the Ombudsman conduct its own investigation into the alleged questionable deals in the purchase of P8 billion worth of pandemic supplies from a small start-up, Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.
“We welcome the call of the Philippine College of Physicians that this matter should immediately be given to our courts and the Ombudsman. We have been saying this for the longest time and we all know that the Senate cannot prosecute.,” Duterte said.
He said the doctors are more intelligent and understand the law, saying “filing cases is the right way to go.”
Duterte made the remarks after the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) urged the Ombudsman to file the appropriate cases against all those responsible for any corruption.
He then called on the Senate Blue Ribbon committee to stop using the Pharmally investigation “in aid of election,” since the Senate is not an investigating body.
The President has called many times for an end to the Senate investigation into the government’s procurement contracts with Pharmally, a company associated with his friend and former economic adviser Michael Yang. He has also spoken up in defense of Pharmally, leaving himself open to accusations of lawyering for the company.
But Duterte said senators investigating the alleged overpricing of COVID 19 medical supplies were getting “free campaign exposure” ahead of next year’s elections.
The Senate is not a criminal investigation body and should not act like a court, he added.