Sunday, October 14, 2007

Palace, not Congress, holds power of the purse

By Efren L. Danao, Manila Times Senior Reporter

Congress prides itself in wielding the so-called power of the purse—or the power to appropriate. This congressional power is now a myth.

During the pre-martial law Congress when the chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations was a very powerful personality, the legislature wielded true power.

Today, however, the real power of the purse rests with Malacañang.

The House had just approved after a marathon session the proposed 2008 national budget totaling P1.227 trillion. The hard work exerted by Speaker Jose de Venecia and the House Committee on Appropriations headed by Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay is commendable. For the first time in eight years, the House approved the national budget on second reading on the second week of October.

The House reviewed the priorities in the budget proposed by Malacañang and reallocated P30.1 billion to increase the budget for education, books, desks, scholarships and school buildings, among others. The House and the Senate for that matter—can cut and augment the individual budget of various government offices as long as it does not go beyond the total budget proposal of the President for the entire national government.

The budget process, however, goes beyond the mere enactment of the general appropriations act for a fiscal year. Funds must still be released from the National Treasury for the purposes stated in the annual budget, and this is why Malacañang, not Congress, holds the real power of the purse. Malacañang has the authority to deny funding even for items already contained in the budget act.

Source of power

Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, a fiscal authority in the Senate, points to Presidential Decree 1177 as the main reason why Malacañang continues to hold sway over the budget since the martial law days.

P.D. 1177 was promulgated by then-President Ferdinand Marcos on July 30, 1977, ostensibly to institutionalize the budgetary innovations of his New Society program. 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 after its enactment.

It also grants the president the authority to augment any appropriation of the executive department in the act from savings in the appropriation of another department, bureau, office or agency within the executive branch.

Among the progressive sectors, the greatest “evil” wrought by P.D. 1177 is its provision for the automatic appropriation for debt servicing. The decree lumps principal and interests on public debts and national government guarantees of obligation with personnel retirement and GSIS premiums as automatically appropriated except as issued in the form of regular budgetary allotments. There is no quarrel in the automatic appropriation of retirement benefits and GSIS premiums—but debt servicing and government guarantees on loans?

Hands of Congress tied

Many do not know it but Congress actually has no say on debt servicing. It is not part of the cash budget subject to congressional approval. The “cut” of P17.8 billion from debt servicing was the result not of a new-found power of the House but of the continuing appreciation of the peso. If the peso declines, the national government has no choice but to pay the equivalent amount—despite the “cut” by the House.

Angara recalled that during the days of Batasang Pambansa or parliament, the opposition flailed away at P.D. 1177 for clipping the powers of the legislature. Then Member of Parliament Alberto Romulo said the legislature and the people were “na-onse” (duped) by P.D. 1177. Yet, when Romulo became budget minister in 1986 under the Cory administration, he made full use of the decree.

In fact, all presidents after Marcos continue to implement P.D. 1177 by transferring funds from one department to another and refusing to release funds for projects proposed by political enemies.

“I guess Malacañang does not want to lose such a great power,” Angara said on why the executive department is keeping this controversial law of martial law vintage.

Congress tries to correct

Angara said there were previous attempts by leaders of the House and the Senate to prop up the legislature’s power of the purse by pressing for line-item budgeting. Speaker de Venecia and former Senate President Franklin Drilon led the move for line-item budgeting. They said it would make the budget more transparent and, more important, assure that funds are spent only for the item specified. Malacañang opposed the move and nothing has been heard of it since.

As long as P.D. 1177 is in the statute books, complaints of lawmakers, especially members of the opposition, on the non­release of their “pork barrel” or the inadequate funding for their projects will be met with a cold shoulder by Malacañang. Insofar as the budget is concerned, Malacañang proposes, and Malacañang disposes.

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