There was a time when the General Appropriations Act (GAA) was the single most important measure to be passed by Congress in any given year. Not anymore. Under the supposedly reformist administration of President BS Aquino The Last, I mean The Third, and abetted by a spineless 16th Congress, this measure has degenerated into a mere scrap of paper. Or, to look at it from another angle, the GAA has become a blank check given by Congress to Malacañang.
Don’t be misled by the numerous committee hearings and plenary debates on the budget in both the House and the Senate. The time and effort devoted by the two chambers to the budget will only accentuate the fact that the legislature has already lost its power of the purse which has been hijacked by Malacañang. Hijacked? Sorry, wrong word used. It should be “gifted to.” For Congress has actually yielded this power without any resistance to our omnipotent know-it-all president.
In the previous session, Malacañang proposed a budget of billions of pesos for the rehabilitation and modernization of various airports. Congress heard, debated and approved this budget item. Well, what do you know! It turned out later that Malacañang had a change of heart. It stopped these projects which it described as “slow-moving,” and classified the unspent fund as savings. Among the funds impounded by the President and diverted to the Disbursement Acceleration Program was the P1.6 billion for the rehabilitation of Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1.
Congress knows that their budget deliberations are all for show. Under our supposedly reform-minded president, budget deliberations have become useless, absurd even. The long hours and days spent by Congress on the budget are wasted because Malacañang has the power to reduce or even to withhold funds for projects itemized in the approved GAA. Thank heavens, the Supreme Court has declared “unconstitutional” Malacanang’s schemes to use the “savings” for projects not contained in the GAA.
It must be stressed that there’s never any public hearing on off-budget projects. Their determination is at the sole discretion of Malacañang that has had a free hand in giving funds for political allies’ pet projects. An example of this is the P450 million from DAP given to two South Korean firms for doing the engineering designs for the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project. Incidentally, this is a pet project of Senate President Franklin M. Drilon. Drilon can justify the need for the project but I doubt if he could justify the sourcing of the fund and why it should be given priority over projects contained in the national budget.
A supposed innovation under the Aquino administration is the itemized budget. The administration has touted this as an indication of its transparency. Significantly, Senate President Pro-tem Ralph Recto has observed that at present, it is hard for Congress or for its constituents to check if a specific project authorized in the GAA has indeed been implemented or has been realigned or its funds impounded.
He said that if the previous budget contained an item for the hiring of 100,000 teachers and 50,000 policemen, the administration should report if it had indeed hired that number of new personnel.
“We are in receipt of seven documents, more than one foot thick, almost 11 kilos in weight, containing 5,020 pages of fine print, but you can go through all of them line by line and you won’t find anything which says that the projects lovingly enumerated in the previous year’s budget have been implemented,” Recto said in a press statement.
I guess Senator Ralph is a lone voice in the Senate seeking accountability of Malacañang for funds approved by Congress. However, I’ll be more impressed if he’d show more perspicacity in sifting thru the voluminous budget proposal of Malacañang.
Makati building probe
At the Senate hearing last Thursday, Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th questioned the allocation of P350 million for the transfer of one Makati government department to the new City Hall cum parking building. He described the amount for the mere transfer from a nearby building as huge and unheard of.
I almost fell off my seat when I heard of the huge amount. This is one issue that I hope Vice President Jejomar Binay and his group would not shrug off as a mere political stunt. Makati people should justify the bases for such a gargantuan budget for the transfer of only one department to another adjacent building. I can’t wait to hear their justification in the next hearing.