I am writing this not only for you but also for your colleagues who I believe are wrestling with the same dilemma: how to initiate budget legislation reforms and still get reelected.
Since 2006, I have been giving briefings on the national budget along with the technical working groups of Social Watch Philippines to congressmen who ask for our analyses. You have been listening to my presentations since you won as congressman four years ago.
Now comes the 2015 budget. Social Watch is delivering stronger messages: first, the President holds the power of the purse while the legislature holds the coin purse; second, the 2015 budget is an election budget; and third, the passage of the DBM bill changing the meaning of savings will further erode the power of the legislature over the purse.
You listened carefully when I gave a lecture to congressmen and congresswomen. I explained that out of a total national budget of P2.606 trillion, only P1.74 trillion will be approved in the General Appropriation Act. This is because P866 billion is automatically appropriated for interest payments, internal revenue allotment and special accounts in the General Fund like the Malampaya Fund and the Motor Vehicles Users Charge Fund.
Out of the P1.74 General Appropriations Act, P328.6 billion in special purpose funds, and P123 billion in unprogrammed funds will not be scrutinized in detail.
This leaves Congress with P1.3 trillion in agency budgets. These budgets are scrutinized department by department. However, personnel expenditures of P761 billion cannot be touched by Congress since these involve the salaries of government employees.
Thus Congress can only examine in detail P699 billion of this monstrous P2.606 trillion budget. The legislature’s power of the purse is limited to less than one-fourth of the total budget!
After my presentation, you spoke with me. You said, “Ma’am, all these years you have mentored and tutored us on the budget. We fully understand and agree with you. But Ma’am, can we introduce budget legislation reform and still win the elections? We can only get projects and funds from the President. Without projects we cannot win.”
My answer at that time was “The decision is yours.” I must explain.
First of all, you must think of yourself not only as an individual congressman wanting to get reelected. You have to think of yourself as part of an institution mandated to ensure the balance of power among the three branches of government by holding fast to the “power of the purse.”
Your duty is to protect Congress as an institution and not to assist in reducing its power. You cannot just stand by and watch the steady dismemberment of the powers of Congress.
Second, my conclusions about Congress’ “power of the purse” are not original. Last October 3, 2007, Cong. Edcel C. Lagman, Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations , reported that out of a total P1.227 trillion expenditure budget, “P286.615 billion or 23.36% of the total budget is the only amount subject to the disposition of Congress.”
Cong. Lagman then thundered these unforgettable words, “Many of our distinguished colleagues would, therefore, ask: ‘What are we talking about?’ or ‘What are we poised to debate on?’ or ‘Must we cross swords on less than a fourth of the annual budget?’ or ‘Are we viewing a carcass?’”
Neither is the statement about Congress’ “Power of the Coin Purse” original .It was uttered by a cngressman who realized how small the power of Congress over the budget is.
Third, you are indirectly asking: “Can I be reelected without presidential largesse, without the support of the Executive and the billions at his disposal?” I know that the current superstition is that one can’t win without presidential support and pork.
I know a number of congressmen who won on the strength of massive public support and citizen contributions. One congressman who eventually became governor and congressman was unbeatable until his death. He won on “piso-piso” contributions from ordinary folk. A number of congressmen became senators even without receiving pork. A well known personality was elected several times over as a senator without receiving a single centavo of pork. He won on the strength of his reputation for integrity and incorruptibility. There are many more.
Yes, Mr. Congressman, it can be done but you have to work very hard at it. You must generate local support–whether financial or political. You must learn from grassroots communities and their problems, especially since you don’t speak their dialect. You need the support of respected leaders in your district. If people see that you are serious about reforms, support will come.
You aspire to remain in an institution whose very strength is steadily eroded. Do you want to help restore its powers or, in the words of Cong. Edcel C Lagman, participate in a “Requiem for the Congressional Power of Appropriation”? God bless you.