BUDGET HEARINGS in Congress are necessarily detailed. They are important undertakings that have not received the kind of journalistic coverage they deserve. Their relevance to good governance, corruption and public welfare has not been made more interesting to ordinary people.
It is easy enough to understand since most people these days worry about their own personal budgets.
But there are areas of concern that attract more public interest than others. People relate to the most visible problems: education, health, roads, social welfare - these are big ticket items that spark public discussion.
The Education department always gets the largest slice of the budget pie, but it has always been plagued by deficiencies. The Department of Education (DepEd) has been in the news not just for the shortages in such basic elements as classrooms and teachers. A perennial learning crisis has also deepened even more because of the pandemic.
Philippine schools reopened later than our Asian neighbors, and are among the most delayed in the resumption of face-to-face learning. Even before the pandemic, almost every study has ranked the country among the lowest in performers education. But former Secretary Leonor Briones took offense with a 2021 World Bank report that said the Philippines' education crisis worsened during the pandemic, accusing the WB of shaming the country. More recently, the World Bank reported that the Philippines' "learning poverty" is the worst in the East Asia and Pacific region.
The Education secretary post was the first in the Cabinet to be filled, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced even before his inauguration that he was appointing Vice President Sara Duterte to the post. She took over amid several crises that emerged during the previous administration, including the purchase of overpriced but outdated laptops.
On September 14, Duterte attended the hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations first, to defend the proposed PHP710.66 billion for the 2023 DepEd budget.
TV Patrol‘s report presented a detailed look at the proposed budget, taking note of items with reduced funding in comparison with the 2022 version. Some of these were slashed to zero, including priority school health facilities and the special education program. Reporter RG Cruz said while the proposed 2023 Deped budget showed an increase from the 2022 allocations, the amount approved by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for next year was still lower than what DepEd requested. Frontline Pilipinas reported that this prompted Duterte to claim that should Congress grant DepEd another PHP 100 billion on top of its PHP 710 billion budget, the agency would solve basic education problems in six years. However, the report did not subject this to any evaluation.
Media did not follow up on Duterte's asking for an additional PHP100 billion. There were no questions on how learning deficiencies could be addressed in six years, as she claimed. It all sounded like a lot of big talk reminiscent of her father's own self-imposed deadline on solving the drug problem. As media did not recall this, no journalist noted that former President Rodrigo Duterte had to admit that he failed.
Sara Duterte was apparently most insistent about the confidential funds of both DepEd and the Office of the Vice President; the Inquirer, the Manila Bulletin's online edition, and primetime newscasts reported her comment during the hearing that the classroom shortage was an "unsolvable quicksand," as allocations for this have been consistently inadequate. Duterte said DepEd is committing instead to flexible learning arrangements, which did not sit well with some interpellators.
Reporters differed in the news they presented: the print editions of the Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard and Daily Tribune all focused on Duterte's update with the committee that DepEd has concluded its review of the K-12 program. The Manila Times did not report on the hearing at all.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star did better, by reporting questions from minority lawmakers about the confidential funds requested by DepEd amounting to PHP150 million. The Star pointed out that Deped, as well as the OVP had no such funding in the 2016 to 2022 budgets.
Inquirer, Star and primetime news programs reported the exchange between Duterte and Makabayan bloc representatives. Duterte insisted she needed good intelligence and security funding to address education issues, particularly those of the criminal kind: sexual grooming of learners, recruitment of youth to terrorist groups and drug use of the youth. Opposition lawmakers emphasized that addressing the lack of school infrastructure is the more important concern, and the confidential funds are better used for that purpose.
TV5's analysis of DepEd's budget proposal, which aired two days before the hearing, included data showing the extent of the learning problem, as well as our position in education globally. Providing this context even before the hearing is the sort of reporting necessary to get ahead of the news so journalists can ask the right questions.
Sara's OVP gets easy pass
Lest anyone forget, Sara Duterte was elected to the Office of Vice President, a position just a breath away from the Presidency. Its importance has been degraded by the description of the Vice President is only a "spare tire." But when President and Vice President win as a team, the VP is almost always assigned a Cabinet portfolio.
However, when the post is filled by a politician from the opposition, as laws allow, beastly politics depletes the office of any significance. Leni Robredo was not even given ceremonial duties, her office given only the paltry sum of PHP 702 million in the last year of her term.
The current situation for the VP is clearly different. Sara Duterte is concurrent Secretary of Education, a post which will likely require even more time and attention. And yet, her proposed OVP budget of PHP 2.292 billion is 306 percent higher than what her predecessor received.
CMFR had noted that very few reports called attention to the huge increase, although the information shocked netizens. What justification could be considered, media have yet to report.
Duterte breezed through all seven minutes of the process. Lawmakers in the majority let the budget pass, claiming they did not pose questions out of "courtesy" to the two highest officials of a co-equal branch. News reports carried this claim and noted that legislators reserved questions for plenary discussion. Some House reporters echoed the official line that it was "tradition" to swiftly end hearings both for the OVP and the Office of the President; Rappler noted that past deliberations usually lasted no longer than 15 minutes.
Should the media have given the issue of the VP's soaring budget more time and scrutiny? Clearly, the people do not owe any public official the courtesy of silence. And neither does the press.
So the following reports should be noted:
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Malaya, news.ABS-CBN.com and Manila Bulletin Online reported the protests of lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc, who criticized the "practice of servility" of their colleagues. The Inquirer said Representatives Arlene Brosas, Raoul Manuel and France Castro were in line to interpellate on the OVP budget but were not allowed to do so.
Philstar.com and the Inquirer included the defense of Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Elizaldy Co that the OVP "is no longer just the passive office as originally envisioned but by necessity must actively engage with the Filipino people." Co cited the alleged accomplishments of Duterte in less than 100 days in office. Reports did note that Duterte requested funding for socioeconomic services and projects such as medical assistance and livelihood programs. BusinessWorld cited the explanation of lawyer Michael Henry Yusingco, research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government, that the request for a budget increase was due to the precedent that Robredo set. But Yusingco clarified that any additional funding must be for administrative purposes only. In the same report, Prof. Dennis Quilala of the UP Political Science Department said Duterte's programs are similar to Robredo's. But he flagged the OVP's free ride program as something that should be the concern of the Transportation department.