THE House of Representatives approved early Saturday the P1.645-trillion proposed national budget for 2011 on second reading.

The approval came at 3:03 a.m. amid calls by lawmakers for the resignation of Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles for allegedly insulting a lawmaker from Lanao del Norte province.

"I think the issue transcends whether a member that was objected to an insult is a Christian or a Muslim, or from Visayas or Mindanao," Representative Eduardo Gullas (first district, Cebu), who seconded the motion, said.

But, Deles said that she is leaving her faith to President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III who re-appointed her to the position. "I serve at the pleasure of the President," Deles added after denying that she insulted the Lanao del Norte Representative Fatima Aliah Dimaporo.

During the budget consideration of the Office of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) early this week, Deles allegedly told Dimaporo (second district, Lanao del Norte) to get her facts straight after she interpellated on the issue of peace process.

The incident irked Representative Tupay Loong (first district, Sulu), committee chairman of Muslim affairs, and Representative Marc Cagas IV (first district, Davao del Sur) who moved for a P1 budget allocation for the OPAPP for 2011.

"Colleagues, let us not allow such arrogance to happen in our House, not in our House...You come here to Congress and ask for budget for the OPAPP and yet you cannot stand to be questioned," Cagas said.

In a letter sent to Loong and Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, Dimaporo said that Deles confronted her in the south lounge inside the House of Representatives and offended her as if to take away her right to question the peace process.

"The overall tone was Secretary Deles was defensive, bordering hostile. At one point she raised her voice. Because I immediately felt embarrassed...I responded by telling her that she did not have to be angry and that I was simply asking questions," the letter read.

Dimaporo narrated that Deles said that the problem with Muslim legislators is that they are mostly new and don't understand how the peace process works.

The peace adviser also insinuated that the congresswoman deliberately wanted to delay the approval of the Office of the President's (OP) budget. The OPAPP is an attached agency of the OP.

"As I was questioning her programs she had cut me off saying that she wished that before I had spoken to her that I read up on her background. She told me to read her books," Dimaporo said in the letter.

The lawmaker said she expected diplomacy from a member of the Cabinet and much more as Deles is the peace adviser of the country.

The session was suspended for almost an hour after the disagreement was brought up at the plenary session. Deles was seen to almost approach Rep. Dimaporo but several lawmakers said that the latter refused to talk to the peace adviser.

Deliberations went well

Before the last day of the budget deliberations, committee on appropriations chair Joseph Emilio Abaya had already assured the passage since any delay would have a ripple effect on the schedule of budget deliberations in the Senate.

"Everything went well naman. May fair share of questions, of course maraming suggestions and recommendations for amendments, lahat yan pinapasa lang sa committee on appropriations and uupuan po yan para tingnan which are the amendments worth agreeing to or which ones that are being held back or which would not see the light of day" Abaya told reporters.

Congress is going into recess, a three-week break, starting Saturday but the appropriations committee will still be busy tackling the proposed individual amendments. Abaya explained that typically, the budget bill is approved in second reading without the individual amendments.

Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II elected himself, Lagman, Abaya and Representative Jocelyn Limkaichong (first district, Negros Oriental) in the small group which will tackle the individual amendments during the recess. The deadline of submission of the amendments is on October 19.

Proposed alignments will be at the budget of the National Food Authority particularly in the procurement of palay, and for barangay and rural electrification.

Budget for state colleges and universities, which are highly opposed by several lawmakers, are still subject to discussions, Abaya said, pointing out that there remains to be a significant amount of retained earnings totaling P19 billion.

In order, the top ten government departments which will get the highest allocation are education (P207.3 billion), public works (P110.6 billion), defense (P104.7 billion), interior and local government (P88.2 billion), agriculture (P37.7 billion), social welfare and development (P34.3 billion), health (P33.3 billion), transportation and communications (P32.2 billion), agrarian reform (P16.7 billion), and the judiciary (P14.3 billion).

DSWD budget heavily scrutinized

While other budgetary items including the lump sum amounts breezed through without questions from the lawmakers, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) had to pass through the eye of a needle because of the agency's budget increase of 123 percent to P34.3 billion.

The biggest component of the DSWD budget which was heavily scrutinized for three days was the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program amounting to P21.9 billion. The CCT is part of the P29.2-billion budget for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).

In a press release, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad defended the CCT saying it will enable the country to comply with the millenium development goal commitments in 2015.

Abad said the expanded CCT for 2011, which targets 2.3 million households, is timely, responsive and a substantial improvement of the existing program implemented during the Arroyo administration.

"It is responsive, because it targets directly the poor households and addresses severe reversals in key social indicators such as universal elementary education and maternal healthcare," he noted.

"It is an improvement because it is more comprehensive: beyond CCT, the program comes with substantial investments in basic education, child immunication, and maternal health and public health services," Abaya stressed.

The budget chief said the Aquino government did only expand the CCT program, from P10 billion in 2010 to P21 billion in 2011, but also ensured a "complete and comprehensive package" to make it effective in liberating indigent households in poverty.

During the interpellation of former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the plenary hearing on the budget of the DSWD Tuesday, she said that the implementation of the CCT program next year is ambitious and untimely considering the huge number of households the administration is targeting.

Aquino then lashed back at his predecessor for not being professional in her work in Congress by scrutinizing the budget of DSWD.

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman is one of the Cabinet members of Arroyo who resigned during the height of the "Hello, Garci" controversy after the 2004 national elections.

Lawmakers on budget

Gabriela Representative Luzviminda Ilagan dubbed the budget as a "deformed" and not a reform budget which the Aquino administration is pushing for.

Ilagan, along with other lawmakers, say that the transparency promise has been lost because of the lump sum amounts indicated in the national budget.

While Representative Carlos Padilla (lone district, Nueva Vizcaya) notes that the P1.645-trillion budget is higher than that of 2010, the budget for the services to be rendered by the government is much smaller.

"The budget that's directly spent is smaller. It is also a budget of lump sums negating PNoy's call for transparency. A huge amount for "dole out" instead of reducing poverty, it perpetuates poverty. It will make us a nation of mendicants," Padilla said in a text message.

Arroyo's brother-in-law Representative Iggy Arroyo (second district, Camarines Sur) also questioned the lump sum amounts which he said indicates that the budget was not distributed properly.

Representative Mitos Magsaysay (first district, Zambales) meanwhile said that with the passage of the budget bill, the administration showed that it is "stubborn" and not receptive to amendments which could help uplift the plight of his bosses, the Filipino people.

However, Kasangga sa Kaunlaran (Ang Kasangga) Representative Teodorico Haresco, Jr. negated this and defended the budget which he said expressed Aquino's statement, "Kayo ang boss ko".

"We commend the passage of the budget through the deft steering of Speaker Belmonte. We know this budget would be a key tool of the Aquino administration's effort for economic growth," he added.

P50 million for party-lists

Meanwhile, both the budget chief and the appropriations committee chair denied reports that party-list lawmakers will also be getting a P50-million fund for disbursement in national roads and bridges.

Representative Angelo Palmones of Alyansa ng mga Grupo ng Haligi ng Agham at Teknolohiya para sa Mamamayan (Agham) said Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson assured party-list lawmakers of the P50-million allocation.

However, Budget Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad and appropriations committee chair Abaya said that there is no truth to the issue.

"There is no agreement. Those are discussions, those are recommendations. (There is) nothing firm on that," Abaya told reporters in an interview. Abad also told Sun.Star in a text message that "(the reports are) not true".

Abaya added that if the P50-million funds are appropriated to party-list lawmakers, it would be unclear where it will be allocated since they do not cater to geographical constituencies.

"Ang tanong, may constituency din in terms of road projects ang partylists and mahabang debate yan dahil if you're regional, probably yes if you represent a region pero kung representante ka ng security guards, then ang hirap naman i-relate," he noted.

District congressmen were earlier guaranteed a minimum of P50 million for road projects in their areas to ensure equitable distribution of funds from the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Other party-list lawmakers, including Aquino ally Bagong Henerasyon Representative Bernadette Herrera-Dy, also denied the reports.

Bayan Muna Representative Teodoro Casino meanwhile stressed that the DPWH lump sums should be itemized in the national budget and not "arbitrarily used as grease money for the smooth passage of the 2011 budget".

"I expect more transparency from an administration that promises to take the "daang matuwid," he added. (Kathrina Alvarez/Sunnex)