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National

House, Senate back Aquino's power to use savings, including frozen pork, to augment calamity fund

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- Both chambers of Congress have passed resolutions saying President Benigno Aquino III has the authority to use savings, including pork barrel funds frozen by a Supreme Court order, to augment the government’s calamity fund.

Senate Resolution No. 302, introduced and sponsored by Senate President Franklin Drilon, authorizes Aquino to use the chamber’s unutilized Priority Development Assistance Fund, the subject of a temporary restraining order issued by the high court, to augment the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund.

House Resolution 426, authored by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, and Bohol Representatives Rene Relampagos, Arthur Yap and Erico Aristotle Aumentado, urges Aquino to “declare unused appropriations of the 2013 General Appropriations Act as savings to be used to augment the Calamity Fund to enable the government to respond to the recent calamities that have beset the country and immediately normalize the lives of those affected."

It did not specify the amount Aquino can tap from savings to beef up the P7.5-billion calamity fund under this year’s national budget.

Administration allies have argued that the executive has the power to utilize unspent funds in the 2013 budget to address the needs of victims and rehabilitate calamity-stricken Bohol province, devastated by last week’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake, and Zamboanga City, which is still reeling from the toll of the month-long fighting between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front.

Dissent

However, the move was immediately met with criticism.

Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile questioned the constitutionality of realigning the chamber’s pork barrel to the executive.

“When we approved the resolution, the Senate itself would authorize the President to transfer or realign the budget of the Senate for this purpose rather than adopt a supplemental budget directed for the rehabilitation and assistance of affected areas of Bohol and Cebu,” Enrile pointed out.

He explained that Congress is bicameral and the Senate resolution is a unilateral act of “just part of the legislative branch.”

“I believe the more so that we, as part of Congress, we are not Congress, we are just part of Congress, we could not transfer our budget to the executive (branch) for its own uses. We might do an unconstitutional act,” Enrile said.

On the other hand, lawyer Raymond Fortun, who represents one of the petitioners who want the PDAF declared unconstitutional, accused the Senate of attempting to “untangle” their pork barrel from the Supreme Court TRO and hinted that lawmakers might be opening themselves to contempt.

In a post on his Facebook page, Fortun said that, for the Senate “to authorize PNoy to use the funds -- even for whatever noble purpose -- would be a defiance of the coercive powers of the High Court.”

He said if Aquino wants to augment the calamity fund, “the simple solution is to ask Congress for a supplemental appropriations law.”

Drilon’s defense

However, Drilon argued that the pork barrel is not a budget of the legislative but belongs to the executive, thus the resolution does not authorize a fund transfer from one branch to the other.

“Precisely, we emphasize the PDAF is an item and budget in the executive branch, therefore the President is allowed in the Constitution to realign (the) budget within the executive …” Drilon said.

He also said the high court’s TRO and the “waiver of some Senators to use their allocations, and present impoundment of the remaining 2013 Senate PDAF” effectively converted the pork barrel into savings that Aquino “may realign … for the repair, improvement and renovation of government buildings and infrastructure and other capital assets damaged by natural calamities.”

What the House says

In the House, Belmonte maintained that "the President has the power to use savings," but added that Congress may also back it up with a resolution.

He added that while they did not mention any amount in the resolution, he believes Aquino will use a "sizeable" amount to augment the calamity fund.

The authors of the House resolution cited constitutional provisions to back their contentions:

*      Article VI, Section 25 of the Constitution that provides that "No law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations; however, the President, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice and heads of constitutional commissions may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations.

*      2013 GAA General Provision on the Use of Savings that authorizes the President, Senate President, House Speaker, Chief Justice and heads of constitutional commissions to use savings in their respective appropriations to augment actual deficiencies incurred for the current year in any item of their respective appropriations.

*      Supreme Court ruling in the case of Demetria vs Alba, February 27, 1987 that stated that: "The purpose and conditions for which funds may be transferred were specified, i.e. transfer may be allowed for the purpose of augmenting an item and such transfer may be allowed if there are savings from another item in the appropriation of the government branch or constitutional bodies.

To ensure transparency and accountability, the Department of Budget and Management was required to post in their website the releases from the Calamity Fund indicating the amount and purpose.  

Recipient agencies are also required to update the public how the funds are used.  

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