The budget for the Office of the President (OP), all of P3 billion, literally breezed through the Senate finance committee, headed by ally Sen. Francis Escudero, and endorsed for plenary deliberations in a record-breaking 10-minute proceeding in the Senate.
Escudero tried to explain the speed accompanying the approval of the budget of President Aquino’s office saying that besides having “no issue” concerning the allocation, “by tradition, we give courtesy to the Office of the President (as well as the) Office of the Vice President.”
“Other issues that have been coming out (in the news) such as the lump sum allocations of the President, will be discussed in the special purpose funds, defended by the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) in the later part in the budget,” he said in an interview with reporters after the public hearing on the OP’s and the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) proposed budget allocations respectively.
Concerns raised by some congressmen over some items such as appropriations for calamity funds, contingent funds and feasibility studies funds are not included in the budget of the Office of the President, Escudero pointed out.
“Again it’s not part of the OP’s budget. Congress does not appropriate for it. It’s part of the share of the President to form part of his social fund from the income of Pagcor (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.), I believe,” he said.
“There was no reason to stall the approval for plenary of the OP budget. Congress regularly gives courtesies to the office of the OP during budget deliberations. If there are any issues in their respective administrations and offices, these are directed to the departments and not to the office proper itself,” Escudero added in defending his committee’s approval of the allocations for the President’s office, placed at P2.8 billion which is some P89 million or three percent higher than this year.
Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. who appeared before Escudero’s committee, explained that the bulk of the OP’s budget will be used for operational expenses with P1.9 billion which will include the Chief Executive’s foreign and travel expenses while P643 million will cover personnel services and P183 million for capital outlay or expenses for repairs and similar budgetary requirements.
The huge amount for “repairs” of some facilities in Malacañang was brought about by the creation of the Transition Commission at the Office of the Secretary to the Cabinet, Ochoa explained.
The senator said that even though the president’s social fund does not go through Congress, it is still subject to Commission on Audit’s (CoA) rules and regulations and guidelines.
“Even the social fund is not in the president’s budget. The DBM will defend the special purpose funds to include calamity fund, contingency fund, and feasibility studies fund; all the lump sums that are being questioned by the public and the media or even the lawmakers fall under the DBM. They will address these issues during the plenary come November,” he explained.
“It was Congress that appropriated and allocated money for the social fund of the president when we passed the Pagcor Charter and the other revenue-generating laws and how it will be divided and sub-divided into the various agencies of the government. CoA, as the central examiner of all government funds, has its rules and regulations to govern even the President’s social fund,” he added.
But just as when the OP’s proposed budget was recommended to be approved in the plenary, opposition Sen. JV Ejercito lamented to reporters his failure to grill Ochoa on the OP’s proposed budget.
This, even as he acceded to Escudero’s position that by tradition, the two Houses of Congress extend to the President some form of “inter-branch courtesy” which explains why such item in the national budget is deliberated upon expeditiously.
“There’s really not much questions on it. It’s just that there was little time given in having it discussed here. But given a chance, I would have raised some particular concerns. Now that there’s public outrage over public funds, people are asking for more transparency and of course, there’s intelligence funds and the President’s social funds. But we also have to give leeway to the President. We also have to give him courtesy, leeway.
“If I was given the chance, I would have asked for example his social funds, intelligence funds on how they will be used. But we also have to give the President some space because there are things that cannot be quantified right away like calamity. Things like those. So we just have to trust the leadership but ideally, because of the clamor for transparency, it will be good if these items would be broken down or itemized,” Ejercito said.
The neophyte senator admitted that he cannot enjoin the Palace officials into discussing publicly matters concerning national security when it comes to the issue on confidential and intelligence funds.
“We understand. There are things that need to remain classified or confidential,” he said.
Since there was no other senator present during the said hearing, Ejercito was asked by reporters why he’s complaining when he should have attended the proceedings.