"To fight for, to die for"
It was the late Senator Dominador Aytona, who before being elected to the Senate, was the chief budget officer of the Republic, and briefly Central Bank governor, who defined the General Appropriations Act or the national budget as “the economic program of the country in pesos and centavos.” As such, it can be argued that passing the budget is the most important piece of legislation for Congress to enact each year.
It was during the martial law period that the Budget Commission was re-engineered into the Ministry of Budget and Management through the Budget Reform Decree issued by President Ferdinand Marcos, which strengthened the planning, programming and budgeting linkages of the office, with monitoring offices in every administrative region of the country.
At the time, the legislature, Batasang Pambansa, was a mere rubber stamp of the Executive, further neutered by Amendment No. 6 of a Constitution “ratified” by the people under authoritarian rule.
But with the re-birth of a system of checks and balances as provided for in the 1987 Constitution, congressional power of the budgetary system returned, and the House Committee on Appropriations, with its counterpart Finance Committee in the Senate, became the most highly-prized committees in Congress.
Essentially, the budget process begins each year with the Development Budget Coordination Committee issuing guidelines to the different agencies of government as early as the last quarter of the preceding year. For the first three to four months of the year, agencies submit their proposed expenditure programs, which are then synthesized into what is called the National Expenditure Program. The proposed program of expenditures along with sources of financing, then goes to the President for final approval before presentation to the legislature.
Submitted right after the President’s State of the Nation Address, Congress then reviews and goes through the process of enacting the General Appropriations Act based on what is referred to as “The President’s Budget.” It has the power to reduce and re-align the items in the President’s Budget. From the House, the appropriations bill goes to the Senate, even if simultaneous hearings on the expenditure program are held by both chambers to be able to enact the law within the year. Conflicting versions are reconciled in a bicameral conference committee where both houses meet to hammer out a final version, which is then passed by their respective chambers to become the General Appropriations Act for the succeeding year.
The bicameral conference committee is thus labelled the “third house” of Congress.
It is becoming increasingly clear, or in the parlance of the lawyers, abundantly clear, that the brouhaha in the lower House last week, which resulted in the surgical removal of the appropriations committee chairman, Isidro Ungab, replaced by a neophyte party list congressman, was all about control of the budget for the next fiscal year—2021.
From the very beginning of his ascent to the speakership, Alan Peter Cayetano named 24 deputy speakers, many of them ceremonial, but for some who exercise “oversight” powers super-imposed over regular committee chairs. One such deputy speaker is the gentleman from Camarines Sur, who was also its former governor, and whose son is the current provincial chief executive—LRay Villafuerte, who I refer to as El Rey.
El Rey is one of the more innovative local government officials under whose nine-year reign Camarines Sur displayed tremendous progress. He represents a new breed of dynamic local executives whose governance practices are anchored on vision rather than mere re-election. Because they produce results, the Villafuertes have been re-elected continuously from grandpa Luis to El Rey to Migz, the current governor who is El Rey’s son.
But he can also be quite acerbic in language, “palaban” in the native patois, which he has been amply displaying in interviews now that he is a congressman. That made for interesting “sabong” coverage of the events of the last week in the HoR.
Because of the importance of the appropriations committee, its chairmen are normally given presidential nihil obstat before the Speaker gets his House to approve of their designation. That the first committee chair in the present Congress is a veteran legislator from Davao City was thus presumably with palace blessings, or at the least, without objection.
Little is known about the new appropriations committee chairman, who, while a businessman from the same southern city, is a newbie in legislation if not in government service altogether. But the fact that he was chosen clearly means that he should be able to work well with the Speaker and his alter ego on budgetary matters, El Rey.
The other perspective one needs to scrutinize when the Magellan formula takes shape is the date of reckoning. The Lord Allan camp simply says it is October this year, a scant seven months from now. The Alan Peter camp strictly defines the timeline as beginning from July 22, 2019, the day Congress elected him. Fifteen months should therefore mean October 21, 2020, which is under normal timetable just a week before Congress adjourns for the Dia de Los Muertos holidays, and by which time, the House shall have passed its version of the GAA.
Which means the Alan Peter camp shall have control of the most important piece of legislation prior to the presidential and national elections of 2022.
If it had been an even split of the 36 months of the 18th Congress, then clearly Speaker Alan would helm the House until the end of 2021. But one could surmise that the Lord Allan faction wanted to have a major say in the 2021 GAA, and thus haggled for a Magellan formula, the now famous 15-21 split.
The 2021 budget is the election budget. It will be the last time the members of both houses can partake of the bag of goodies so important for them to tout district achievements by way of “projects.” It also is the big scooper of election campaign funding for those so inclined, the kind Ping Lacson has been excoriating against for years and years on end.
The 2022 budget is virtually useless for the re-election purpose of legislators, or for their passing the baton to their family herederos. By the time the appropriations are up for taking courtesy of the DBM’s notice of cash allotment, the ban on “project” spending begins.
Hence, the 2021 budget is to fight for, and to die for.