Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Budget Season

In the Philippines, the onset of the rainy season signals the start of the budget process. The budget season is a time when the political elite of this country converge in Congress to enact the General Appropriations Act (GAA). The GAA is basically a blueprint of the government's entire operating budget in a given fiscal year. In this document one can see all the government's priority programs and projects for the coming year. I usually tell my reporter-friends that one can write one year's worth of news stories just by poring over the GAB (the GAA unenacted is called the GAB or the General Appropriations Bill).

The budget season officially starts when the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) submits the National Expenditure Program (NEP), a document about three inches thick, to Congress. But things only really start to heat up when the Committee on Appropriations schedule budget hearings. During this period, the parking lot of Congress is cramped with luxury vehicles (not to mention VIP drivers and police escorts playing pusoy dos in the parking lot) and its corridors is full of government functionaries anxiously waiting for their department's turn to present their budgets. The most sought-after personalities during this period are the Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Chairs of the Committee of Appropriations of both Houses since no addition, subtraction, "insertion" and "deletion" in GAA can be made without their approval.

By way of background, the Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse and this power allows legislators to tinker with and insert items in the GAB, thus the term "congressional insertion." The appro deliberations is what most politicians live for, and the budget season is the "reason for being" for the majority of congressmen and senators. There are actually congressmen who only appear in Congress during budget hearings, which is just as well because one may craft the best-written law in the world but if it's not in GAA it means nothing. Congress can enact a law granting P5,000 to each Filipino citizen but if it is not programmed in the GAA, it will not be implemented (thus the term "unfunded mandate"). There are people who say that congressional insertions are another form of pork barrel but I tend to disagree because unlike the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund), the implementing agency maintains control and supervision over the project. The unwritten rule in this game of congressional insertions is that a legislator can only realign - that is, juggle or transfer - funds and not add up to the pre-determined budget cap of a particular agency. For example, say the total budget of the Department of Justice is P7 billion. A senator can reallocate P50 million from the budget of the National Bureau of Investigation (which is an attached agency of the DOJ) and transfer the said amount to the Bureau of Corrections (another attached agency) so the entire budget for the Justice Department still remains at P7 billion. In short, it is a zero-sum game.

As they are the ones approving the appropriations bill, senators and congressmen are in their "all-powerful" mode while Cabinet officials, bureau heads and other state officials are in their "best behavior" form. The budget season is perhaps the only time when Cabinet secretaries are made to wait several hours for their turn to present their budget proposals, the only time when a single congressman can delay the budget of an entire department, and the only real opportunity for legislators to make government executives sit up and listen to them seriously. The threat of their budgets being slashed is a cause for grave concern for all Cabinet secretaries and this fear of their budgets "magically" disappearing is the reason why they have people posted in Congress round-the-clock. I've heard stories of senators shouting at Cabinet officials and there are congressmen who regularly threaten that they will give a certain bureau a one-peso budget for the entire fiscal year. This "harassment" by legislators used to be much worse until the GMA administration called the legislators' bluff. For about two fiscal years the government operated on a reenacted budget and all agencies received no increases in their operating budgets. But the downside of a reenacted budget was, as opposition legislators soon found out much to their chagrin, that it gave GMA the authority to do pretty much anything with the budget sans policy directions from Congress. So now, congressmen and senators I think are more circumspect when they oppose the budgets of particular agencies. The "I'll give you a one-peso budget" threat has become hollow, an empty threat. It is all for show anyway, as most legislators only pretend to "oppose" something in order to get the budgetary allocation needed for their pet projects.

Money is very important and without a budget, government agencies pretty much cannot do anything. The GAA sets the tone and dictates the pace and direction of government action. To illustrate better this point, let me just cite one item in the proposed budget. On the block right now is a proposal for a supplemental budget amounting to P15-billion for a Panay Relief Fund to rehabilitate areas in Region 6 devastated by Typhoon Frank. The measure was filed by no less than the Majority Floor Leader of the Lower House, Congressman Arthur Defensor, of the 3rd district of Iloilo and co-sponsored by all the congressmen in Western Visayas. Under the proposed supplemental budget, some P3.4 billion will be given to Iloilo City to bring financial aid to affected Ilonggos, to repair damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure, to assist farmers get back on their feet, etc. Another P3.4 billion will be given to the province of Iloilo and P2.8 billion to rehabilitate the province of Aklan. Implemented correctly, the Panay Relief Fund would make life normal to the victims of Typhoon Frank. Without it, people in affected areas will continue to be miserable.

Having worked in both Houses of Congress, I was able to observe first hand the budget process. One thing I noticed is that only a few legislators learn to master the "art of congressional insertions." One legislator I know who have mastered this art was the late Congressman Narciso Monfort of the 4th district of Iloilo. Congessman Narsing was a pitbull, and his relentless and incessant cajoling of government executives usually resulted in them getting what he wanted. I remember when I was still working for Mar Roxas at the DTI, he called me up in my cellphone at 7:00 in the morning to inquire about the status of his requests (he only made his requests the night before). Another "master" that easily comes to mind was my former boss the late Senator Raul Roco. Back when he was young, Roco worked in the staff of Senator Ninoy Aquino during the pre-Martial Law Senate so he knew the ins and outs of the budget process. Roco could charm his way around most career bureaucrats and if his charm did not work, he would easily flash that famous "mercurial temper" of his at some hapless official. And it usually achieved results. He became so effective that his fellow senators soon complained that he was making too many congressional insertions already. I remember after one hearing where we made another successful insertion in the budget of a particular SUC (State University and College), he turned to me with that signature naughty smile of his and teasingly said, "Ikaw talaga Ollie mahilig ka sa insertions."

Anyway, once the Senate and the House of Representatives have approved their respective versions of the GAB, a bicameral conference committee (bicam) is convened comprised of members from both Chambers to reconcile differing portions of the bill. The bicam is sometimes called the "Third Chamber of Congress." It is where the GAB is fine-tuned and gets its final "coating" so to speak. Many a congressional insertion have found their demise in the bicam. Last-minute insertions are usually made there. The budget season ends in December, usually just before Christmas when Congress adjourns for the yuletide holidays. If by January the GAB is not enacted by Congress, government will operate on a reenacted budget (meaning the previous year's budget).

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