For many years extending to the Duterte administration, the sitting president has been annexing the legislative’s power of the purse to the executive’s power to disburse. The awesome concentration of these two potent powers – appropriation of public funds and expenditure of the people’s money – creates a budgetary dictatorship of the president.
It is opportune to revisit the skewed relationship between the Congress and the President in the preparation, enactment, and execution of the annual national budget or the General Appropriations Act (GAA) since the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has already started the appropriations process for 2022.
The Constitution vests the sole power to appropriate public funds in the Congress, particularly in the more popularly representative chamber, the House of Representatives, where all appropriation measures originate.
Accordingly, the following Sections of Article VI on the Legislative Department provide: (1) “All appropriation… bills shall originate exclusively in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments.” (Sec. 24); “No money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation made by law.” (Sec. 29); (3) “The Congress may not increase the (total) appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of the Government as specified in the (President’s) budget.” (Sec. 25); (4) “The President shall have the power to veto any particular item or items in an appropriation… bill.” (Sec. 27); and (5) Two-thirds vote of all the Members of the House and the Senate voting separately may override the veto. (Sec. 27).
Relatedly, Section 22 of Article VII on the Executive Department provides: “The President shall submit to the Congress within 30-days from the opening of every regular session, as the basis of the General Appropriations Bill, a budget of expenditures and sources of financing including receipts from existing and proposed revenue measures.” This refers to the National Expenditure Program (NEP).
In Philconsa vs. Enriquez, the Supreme Court ruled: “Under the Constitution, the spending power called by James Madison as the ‘power of the purse,’ belongs to Congress, subject only to the veto power of the President. The President may propose the budget, but still the final say on the matter of appropriations is lodged in the Congress. The power of appropriation carries with it the power to specify the project or activity to be funded under the appropriation law. It can be as detailed and as broad as Congress wants it to be.”
Belgica vs. Ochoa, which declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional, did not diminish the plenary power of the Congress to appropriate. It just correctly invalidated the non-oversight and post-enactment interventions of legislators in the budget execution by the president as violations of the separation of powers. However, legislators can continue funding projects itemized in the GAA.
The congressional power of the purse traces its ancestry and ascendancy from the inception of our Republicanism to various drafts, statutes and constitutions, like: Programa Consitucional de la Republica de Filipina, drafted by Apolinario Mabini; Malolos Constitution of 1899; Philippine Bill of 1902; and the Constitutions of 1935, 1973 and 1987.
The enduring truism is the president proposes the national budget, and the Congress disposes of the annual appropriations. Indeed, the inflexible tradition is the NEP is not cast in stone. Provided the totality of the president’s budget is not exceeded, the Congress can amend, modify, reduce or augment the president’s proposed allocations. Congress wields the scalpel to excise profligate and errant allocations in the NEP. These verities are almost gone!
The President’s seizure of the power of the purse began officially under DBM Circular 01-2009 dated Jan. 20, 2009 (Arroyo presidency) which was reiterated by DBM Circular Letter No. 2010-9 dated Dec. 30, 2010 and DBM Circular No. 09-2015 dated Aug. 18, 2015 (Aquino 3rd presidency). These circulars authorize early procurement/bidding of goods, services and infrastructure projects, short of award, based on the NEP’s budget levels, pending approval of the bicameral conference committee’s reconciled version of the General Appropriations Bill, and prior to the GAA’s enactment. This installed the predominance of the NEP.
DBM Circular Letter No. 2013-6 dated July 20, 2013 further derogated congressional budgetary authority by prohibiting government agencies from lobbying before Congress for augmentation of their budgets in the NEP, making the NEP untouchable. Moreover, presidential impoundment of congressional appropriations has long been a practice.
President Rodrigo Duterte continues enforcing these precedents. He likewise implements the following: (a) preparing a comparative matrix of the expenditure items in the NEP and the new allocations in the GAA, and those found to be new items not favored by the President, or contrary to the NEP, are segregated for either direct item veto or “administrative veto”; and (b) those for “administrative veto” are either altogether impounded or categorized “For Later Release”, subject to the President’s conditionalities.
The president under the Constitution exercises only item veto, which obliterates the item vetoed. The expenditure items not subjected to item veto subsist. Items are either vetoed or released. There is no constitutional hybrid species like “conditional” or “administrative” veto, which consigns the disfavored expenditures to purgatory. Their release or salvation depends on the President’s will.
Verily, the President arrogates congressional power of appropriation. The NEP allocations are the only ones considered sacrosanct. Now, the President both proposes and disposes of the budget. The GAA is reduced as the NEP’s virtual copycat. It is used to authorize only the president’s desired expenditures.
Before a new president is elected next year, Congress must regain its supremacy in the appropriation of public funds. It must stop the hemorrhaging of the legislative’s power of the purse which has been mercilessly bludgeoned by Malacañang with the complicity and tolerance of legislative leaders and both chambers’ majority coalitions.