The violent dispersal by some 300 policemen of about 100 youths protesting the holding of the World Economic Forum shows that remnants of martial law are still lurking behind our democratic government.
The Constitution grants citizens the right to demonstrate but this right is being curtailed by a presidential decree of martial law vintage banning rallies without any permit. The “no-permit-no-rally decree” of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos is being used to justify the dispersal of demonstrators exercising their constitutional right.
At the Regular Batasan, opposition to the martial law regime regularly railed against this no-permit-no-rally decree for being undemocratic. They charged that it abridged the people’s constitutional right to seek redress and to peaceably assemble. Martial law has been gone for more than 28 years but this decree is still being vigorously enforced. If it was “unconstitutional” during martial law, how can it be constitutional now that martial law is gone?
Two presidential decrees issued during martial law are worse than the no-permit-no-rally because they erode the supposedly inherent power of Congress to appropriate. These are PD 1597 and PD 1177 that all post-EDSA 1 administrations have fully embraced. These decrees made the legislature a mere rubber stamp during martial law so what are they doing in our statute books under our supposed democratic space?
Presidential Decree 1597 authorizes the President to grant government employees allowances, honoraria and other fringe benefits. Malacañang believes that under this PD, it can increase the salaries of those in government even without legislation. President Fidel V. Ramos invoked it to increase the monthly allowance of government employees. President Erap Estrada followed the same tack in increasing the subsistence allowance for uniformed personnel, and so did President Arroyo in granting government employees a 10-per cent hike in pay and in increasing by P1000 each the monthly allowances for soldiers and policemen.
PD 1177 is the main reason why the supposed Power of the Purse of Congress is now a myth. Marcos promulgated the decree on July 30, 1977 ostensibly to institutionalize the budgetary innovations of the New Society. The decree, ironically called the “Budget Reform Decree of 1977” grants the President the authority to transfer any fund appropriated for the different departments included in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) after its enactment.
It also grants the President the authority to augment any appropriation of the executive department in the GAA from savings in the appropriation of another department, bureau, office or agency within the executive branch. It’s the sole excuse used by Malacanang in justifying its Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) which disbursed billions from savings accumulated when the Aquino administration cut down on infrastructure expenses the previous year.
To the progressive sector the greatest “evil” wrought by PD 1177 is its provision for the automatic appropriation for debt servicing. The decree lumps principal and interests on public debts and national government guarantees for obligations with personnel retirement and GSIS premiums as automatically appropriated except as issued in the form of regular budgetary allotments. There is no quarrel about the automatic appropriation of retirement benefits and GSIS premiums but debt servicing and government guarantees on loans?
There have been various attempts to amend or repeal PD 1177 but no administration supported such stabs. While it remains in the statute books, any administration can wield the uncontested power to disburse funds as it pleases. The more hardworking lawmakers may subject the proposed budget to a fine comb and realign projects to what they believe should enjoy greater priority and with bigger funding. Their hard work ends up being all for nothing whenever Malacañang doesn’t agree with their priorities. Congress may cut the budget of one office and transfer it to another after painstaking studies. However, the President can restore the cut, or even increase the budget of another office as long as the total budget of the executive department is not exceeded. After all, this is allowed under PD 1177.
This power to withhold funding even if authorized by the GAA is the main reason why the national budget as passed by Congress is always different from that implemented by Malacañang. If our lawmakers let this situation persist, then they themselves are to blame for the erosion of their constitutional power to appropriate. If they won’t repeal this decree, then they should stop deluding themselves that they still hold the Power of the Purse.
Romulo notes missing name
Former Sen. Bert Romulo called once again to say he was reaffirming what he had said about the quality of Manila Times columnists. He chided me, however, for missing the name of one of his favorites—Maribel Ongpin. Sorry Maribel, ma’am. Sometimes my memory fails me.