Plenary nod needed to return to bicam-approved budget – House leader

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House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro says the entire House of Representatives would need to sign off on the Senate's suggestion to return to the budget bill which was agreed upon in the bicameral conference committee.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 15) — A House leader said the entire House of Representatives would need to sign off on the suggestion of the Senate to revert the budget version approved by the bicameral conference committee to break the deadlock among lawmakers.

"Withdrawing what was submitted to the Senate by simply the decision of one person, we will have to get the approval of the plenary to withdraw that. Nobody can decide that except the plenary," House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro told CNN Philippines on Friday.

Senators have proposed that the House withdraw the budget bill it transmitted to them and revert to the version approved by the bicameral conference committee and ratified by Congress. This does not contain the itemized appropriation introduced by congressmen to lump sum funds.

Once it reaches Malacañang, President Rodrigo Duterte will veto the lump sum funds, then Congress, in a special session, will just pass a supplemental budget that would break down the lump sum appropriation.

Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III told CNN Philippines in a text message that he is open to any compromise on the budget "as long as it conforms to what the Constitution says."

However, Castro warned that taking the Senate proposal would further delay the budget as Congress would not resume sessions until after the elections in May.

"We are trying to hammer options short of going back. Kasi [Because] that would already be kilometric. Tagal na 'yan [Too long,]" he said.

But Sotto said that the House could just resend the budget bill to them without the questioned realignments.

Sotto has vowed not to sign the budget bill transmitted by the House, saying that he may be charged with falsification of legislative documents by certifying the bill which contains provisions which were not ratified by Congress, effectively blocking its transmittal to Malacañang for Duterte's signature.

Senators have assailed these post-ratification itemizations, and even alleged realignments, as illegal and unconstitutional, but House members assert that these are aboveboard.

Castro even said that it would not be possible for lawmakers in the bicameral conference committee tasked to reconcile conflicting provisions in the Senate and House versions of the budget bill to scrutinize its four volumes.

"In the bicameral conference, there are no details there. They are only talking of lump sum. It is only after the ratification of the bicameral conference report that details are supplied to the Senate and the House of Representatives for the purpose of printing the enrolled bill," he said.

He added that senators should have "cool minds" and reconsider their view that the House's itemization of lump sums in the budget is illegal.

Senators have denied itemizing lump sums in the budget after its ratification, but House Appropriations committee chair Camarines Sur 1st District Rep. Rolando Andaya have presented documents which supposedly show that the Senate submitted itemizations to the budget after its ratification.

'Senators also realigned funds'

This latest impasse between the House and the Senate is a stumbling block to the enactment of the 2019 budget, causing the government to continue operating under a reenacted budget for three months in, which has impacted some government projects, including the rehabilitation of the MRT-3 and the construction of the Metro Manila subway.

Despite having met with Duterte and floating suggestions to break the budget impasse, there is still no clear path to finally have fresh funding for the government, with the Senate insisting that the House stick to what was ratified by Congress and the House standing pat on its itemizations.

Congressmen and senators have also traded accusations that they shaved off funding from government agencies and transferred them somewhere else, particularly to their own congressional districts or bailiwicks.

Castro told CNN Philippines' The Source that some senators, whom he did not name, removed around ₱75 billion worth of funds originally allocated for the Environment department's greening program, right-of-way acquisition, scholarships for rehabilitated drug addicts and former rebels, and foreign-funded projects after the ratification of the budget.

"It disappeared like a puff of air. It's there but it was placed somewhere," Castro said.

Senators, on the other hand, have said that congressmen removed some ₱100 billion in funds originally allocated for the administration's ambitious Build, Build, Build infrastructure project, but was supposedly transferred to their own congressional districts after the ratification of the budget.

But Castro denied this, saying that funds for Build, Build, Build are intact in the budget.

However, he admitted that right now, it is just the senators' words against congressmen's. "It's a question of evidence. It's a question of contention. It's a question of whom to believe," he said.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said yesterday that Duterte has not imposed a deadline for the enactment of the budget and is allowing senators and congressmen to settle among themselves issues surrounding the budget.

Panelo added that the government is prepared in the event that no new spending bill is passed and it would be forced to operate under a reenacted budget for the entire year.

The National Economic and Development Authority has warned that if the budget is only passed in August, the country's economic growth will only be around 4.9 to 5.1 percent, while growth can further stunt to 4.2 to 4.9 percent if the budget is reenacted for the entire year.

Economic managers also slashed the country's growth forecast from seven to eight percent to six to seven percent due to the delay of the 2019 budget.