Last Monday, November 17, 2014 a number of interesting events happened in the Senate. In the morning, a necrological service was held for the much-loved Senator Juan Flavier. Two other related events took place: the referral to the Committee on Finance of the General Appropriations Bill (House Bill 4968) and a briefing by Social Watch Philippines on why the Senate should not allow the redefinition of savings and change the meaning of the word “errata.”
Even as the bill was debated in the House, Social Watch Philippines had been emphasizing that this bill is different from all the other appropriations act which both Houses of Congress have enacted before.
Oh yes, the usual PDAF-like items are still there. Even as the Supreme Court declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional, lump sums with pork characteristics persist in the 2015 General Appropriations Bill.
A review of at least five agency budgets showed more than P37 billion in lump sums for projects. These are the Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Commisson on Higher Education, Department of Labor and Employment and Department of Public Works and Highways. The latter has an item for “Local Infrastructure Programs” totaling P18.3 billion.
And yes, the lump sums of the Executive are still there: Special Purpose Funds of P376.5 billion and unprogrammed funds of P123 billion, plus direct remittances from PAGCOR and PCSO.
Of course P866 billion in automatic appropriations are still in the budget, consisting of the interest payments for debt, internal revenue allotment, and the controversial Malampaya Funds and Motor Vehicles Users Charge Fund. Automatic appropriations are not usually reviewed in detail by both Houses.
Finally, there are the last-minute insertions, amendments, additions and “pahabols” which both Houses usually negotiate for.
SO WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
What is new is the redefinition of savings and the change in the meaning of the word “ERRATA.” These two changes will have a profound impact not only on the general appropriations act, but more important, the balance of power among the three branches of government, particularly between the Legislature and the Executive.
Changing the meaning of errata: revising the Latin language
All undergraduates struggling with their term papers have been taught that “errata” is the plural of “erratum.” It means errors, usually typographical errors.
The uproar started when the opposition complained that more than 100 pages of errata were submitted by DBM during the second reading of the general appropriations bill in the Lower House. During the third and final reading, opposition congressmen complained again that 269 pages of errata were submitted to the “Small Committee” of the House but the plenary was only given the summary.
Last Monday, after the briefing of Social Watch Philippines for the Senate, I finally had the opportunity to view, touch and peruse the famous errata. I even attempted to lift it. It turned out to be 640 pages of “errata sheets” plus a summary weighing all in all 3 kilos!
Dear readers have you ever heard of 640 pages of errata sheets, weighing three kilos? Is it fair to expect the Senators to insert all those errata sheets in the General Appropriations Bill and keep track of them?
Filipinos are well known for changing the meaning of English words. This time, the General Appropriations Bill will change the meaning of a Latin word whose meaning is generally accepted internationally and taught in all academic institutions.
A cursory examination of the “errata sheets” shows that it is a collection of amendments, additions, insertions and errors. How can the Senate pass a General Appropriations Bill with 3 kilos of errata?
Redefining savings: Implications on the balance of power between Executive and Congress
By now readers know that the major issue in the 2015 General Appropriations Bill is the redefinition of savings.
Section 68-69 of the General Provisions in the General Appropriations Bill defines the use and meaning of savings, augmentation and priority in the allocations of savings. At first glance, it looks and reads like the definitions in past bills. However, the addition of the phrase “at any time” totally changes the meaning of the word. The executive can declare savings “at any time.”
The above phrase is tantamount to delivery of Congress’s (both Houses) power of the purse to the Executive. Whatever is passed by the Lower and Upper Houses, whatever amendments and corrections they make can be easily erased with a declaration of “savings at any time.”
The redefinition of savings has been rationalized on the grounds that this is a prerogative of the Legislature and not necessarily a constitutional issue. The position of Social Watch Philippines is that the redefinition of savings is a constitutional issue. The original definition is based on constitutional provisions concerning balance of power. Any legislation that disturbs, demolishes and takes away the Power of the Purse of Congress is unconstitutional.
The Legislature cannot continue passing laws which diminish its own Power of the Purse. Through the years, automatic appropriations have been steadily increasing with more accounts released automatically.
This will be legislative suicide–a ritual hara kiri. If , God forbid, this happens, it will be time for another necrological service.