Arrogance of numbers

By approving in haste the P2.385-billion proposed budget for the Office of the Vice President (OVP) for 2024, congressmen led by Ilocos Norte Rep. Sandro Marcos defied Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez who had assured the public that the chamber would scrutinize next year’s national outlay “with transparency and utmost diligence.”

They also deprived Vice President Sara Duterte of the opportunity to tell it to her critics’ face that there was nothing irregular or unauthorized in the spending of her office’s budget for the current year.

If indeed everything was above board, as the vice president claims in her press releases, she could have shown them the liquidation and accomplishment reports, which, as she was quoted as having said, had been submitted to the oversight agencies. That would have embarrassed and probably silenced her vocal critics from the Makabayan bloc of party-list lawmakers.

But the vice president’s allies chose to use their arrogance of numbers, invoking parliamentary courtesy, to prevent her from responding to the nagging questions about her spending priorities, specifically the P500-million confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) that constitute more than one-fifth of the OVP’s P2. 356-billion budget for 2023.

Romualdez, who is being touted as a prospective rival of Duterte for the presidency in 2028, said during a briefing on the proposed 2024 budget on August 10: “We need to closely examine the budget proposals of every department and agency and analyze every program, activity and project to ensure that the resources are allocated and optimized on the right priorities that address the economic and social challenges of our beloved country.”

This, he said, was in line with the commitment of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to ensure prudent allocation of resources and in support of the administration’s eight-point socioeconomic agenda and the Philippine Development Plan 2023–2028.

Ironically, it was the president’s son who was quick on the draw, moving to terminate the OVP’s budget hearing even before Davao de Oro Rep. Maricar Zamora, the appropriations committee vice chairman who was presiding, could finish saying “thank you” to Duterte for her office’s presentation of the proposed budget.

Zamora looked much too eager to let Duterte go as she initially ignored ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro’s objection to Marcos’ motion and acknowledged instead that the motion to terminate had been seconded, even if the latter’s voice was far louder.

It was quite obvious that the 21 congressmen who voted against Castro’s objection wanted to shield the vice president from responding to the issues earlier raised, particularly on how the P500 million CIF under the OVP was spent. This is relevant because Duterte’s office is asking for another P500 million CIF for 2024.

Invoking parliamentary courtesy when serious questions are left unanswered is a disservice to the taxpayers and the people that the lawmakers have sworn to serve with “competence, efficiency, effectiveness, integrity and fidelity.”

In the OVP’s budget presentation, it said P550 million was spent on medical assistance for 52,472 beneficiaries and P56.9 million for burial assistance for 11.606 million beneficiaries. It did not mention how the proposed P500 million CIF, which is about 21 percent of the total OVP outlay for 2024, will be spent.

On Aug. 28, Castro raised suspicion of misuse of the OVP’s CIF, noting that P125 million of the amount was spent in the last 19 days of 2022, based on a release order from the Department of Budget and Management dated Dec. 13, 2022, for P221.4 million to the OVP.

“The OVP spent the whole P125 million confidential fund given to the office in a span of just 19 days, from Dec. 13 to Dec. 31, 2022. This translates to P6,578,947.37, or almost P7 million per day,” Castro said in a press statement.

Castro said the special allotment release order (SARO) issued by the DBM pertained to “financial assistance/subsidy and confidential fund expenses.” She said the Office of the President approved its release on Nov. 28, 2022.

Duterte explained that the questioned P125 million was spent on events, activities and projects “already planned and identified … as early as August… There was nothing irregular or unauthorized about its spending, and the required liquidation and accomplishment reports have been submitted to the oversight agencies.”

The OVP’s official website shows the following programs: libreng sakay, public assistance, medical assistance, burial assistance and the pagbaBAGo campaign. Notably, these are all duplications of existing programs and services rendered by other line agencies and local government units.

The highlights of the OVP’s budget presentation included the setting up of seven satellite offices in different parts of the country and its medical and burial assistance programs.

If indeed the Makabayan bloc “doesn’t have any substantive information to back up imputations of misuse” of the OVP’s budget allocations, the vice president should have given them a detailed report on it.

She should have made good on her Aug. 25 promise that she would answer Castro’s questions during the budget hearing.

“All she did was wildly and masterfully arrange some allegations against me and the OVP, which will all be answered once the probe is done and during the budget hearing,” Duterte had said. But when the opportunity came, Marcos, the president’s eldest son, prevented any question from being raised. Duterte and her staff started leaving the hearing room after Castro’s microphone was turned off.

It is true that the budget proposals of past vice presidents did not go through meticulous questioning from lawmakers, but they did not have as much as Duterte’s confidential funds, which are much higher than those of her predecessors combined.

Because the administration’s allies have the numbers — a supermajority, in fact — Duterte can spend the OVP budget however she wants to. That’s their version of democracy.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.