The Senate can do “no less” than adopt the House of Representatives’ realignment of P1.23-billion in confidential funds in the proposed P5.768-trillion national budget for 2024, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said on Wednesday.
“The House has taken the first step institutionally. So I think we in the Senate can do no less because we actually started this process last year,” the senator told CoverStory.ph in an interview via Zoom.
In an unprecedented move on secret funds, the House committee on appropriations excised P500 million from the Office of Vice President Sara Duterte and another P150 million from the Department of Education, which Duterte heads in a concurrent capacity; P300 million from the Department of Information and Communications; and P50 million each from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Hontiveros said she was holding on to Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri’s statement to review the proposed budget and “take a similar parallel action to the House of allocating confidential funds where they properly belong.”
She said she and her colleague in the minority, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, would be the first to propose the amendments reallocating the confidential funds to agencies with a “timely role” in defending the West Philippine Sea from China.
“I am really hopeful that the Senate will also stand our ground and actually sustain the efforts that we have been making,” she said.
Of the confidential funds, P300 million was moved to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, P200 million to the National Security Council, P200 million to the Philippine Coast Guard, and P381.8 million to the Department of Transportation.
“I think the five [agencies] already listed by the House small committee are good candidates to be included in the Senate list [of amendments],” Hontiveros said. “And of course, just to set the power of a good example, too, top of the list should really be the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd).”
Any realigned fund should go to “social protection” agencies such as the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, of Health and of Education, she added.
While lauded by many, the House panel’s fund realignment elicited rants from Duterte’s father, former president Rodrigo Duterte, who called Congress “the most rotten institution” in the country and accused Speaker Martin Romualdez of orchestrating attacks against his daughter.
The Vice President and the Speaker are perceived to be contenders for the presidency in 2028.
On Oct. 10, the House committee announced amendments totaling P194 billion, including the realigned funds.
The P1.23 billion is a fourth of the P4.864-billion original allocation for confidential funds. Interestingly, the House committee left the P5.277 billion budget for intelligence funds untouched. In total, the government sought P10.14 billion in confidential and intelligence funds for 2024.
During this year’s deliberations on the 2024 national budget, the OVP’s P125-million confidential funds in 2022 came under scrutiny. The Commission on Audit (COA) said the Vice President spent the surveillance money in 11 days, not 19 days as earlier claimed by some lawmakers.
Pimentel has gone so far as to propose that the Office of the President’s (OP) P2.25-billion confidential funds be slashed and P2.31-billion intelligence funds for 2024 be totally scrapped.
But given that the Senate committee on finance had endorsed the OP’s budget, Pimentel may raise the matter only during the period of amendments.
The committee chair, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, earlier indicated reservations to Pimentel’s proposal to cut the President’s CIF.
“He is the President; do we want to cripple him even after he said he needs this amount?” Angara said.
Pimentel did not respond to CoverStory’s requests for comment.
But Hontiveros said: “Well, certainly, any and all confidential and intelligence funds, even of the highest office of government, are subject to congressional review, as the Senate President already mentioned.”
In last year’s congressional deliberations on the 2023 national budget, Hontiveros managed to get the Senate to realign portions of the DepEd’s confidential funds, but this was reversed at the bicameral conference committee deliberations with the House.
Hontiveros acknowledged that intelligence funds have “a more limited scope” in terms of audit. But she said agencies, state firms and local government units must submit an audit report of their intelligence funds “sealed in an envelope” either to the President, Senate President, House Speaker, COA chair, or heads of institutions.
“Some form of audit is still to be done even on intelligence funds,” she said.
To help the COA, Hontiveros said, lawmakers should study whether to impose stricter appropriation and auditing rules on confidential and intelligence funds.
Compared with intelligence funds, the release, use and reporting of confidential funds are covered only by circulars and executive issuances, she said, adding:
“And we as Congress, as the one holding the power of the purse, I think we can only improve legislation and then improve the appropriation process and, hopefully, help the Commission on Audit improve the auditing process if we look further into this.”
‘Is there a mandate?’
Amid reports that in the past some local government units had been allotted huge amounts of confidential funds to maintain law and order, Hontiveros pushed for setting a threshold for the grant of such funds.
“It can’t be a free-floating amount,” she said.
“In the end, the same principles must apply to such funds, whatever office they are lodged in. Is there a mandate? Is there expertise? What are the levers of accountability that can and must be exercised?” she added.
ACT Teachers Partylist Rep. France Castro had earlier called on the COA to investigate Davao City’s spending of P2.6-billion confidential funds from 2016 to 2022, when Sara Duterte was its mayor.