Did Congress Really Just Cut Off The Commission On Human Rights?
And so it was with thunderous applause.
Yesterday, September 12, following a suggestion by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and a corresponding motion filed by SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta, the House of Representatives voted 119-32 in favor of giving the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a derisory budget of P1,000 for fiscal year 2018.
Over the past year, the CHR has been vocal about its opposition to the administration’s war on drugs; and in response, President Duterte has repeatedly accosted the Constitutional body, even threatening to abolish it last July.
But the idea of a P1,000-budget only came forward last Monday, September 11, when, in an interview with CNN Philippines, Speaker Alvarez threatened to cut the CHR off, saying “Hindi nila ginagawa 'yung trabaho nila,” and suggesting that the Commission only defends the rights of criminals.
The P1,000-budget is a far cry from the Senate finance committee’s proposed CHR budget of P678 million, which passed yesterday; and an even further cry from the original P1.723 billion that the CHR itself initially sought for 2018.
Meanwhile, the proposed 2018 budget for Oplan Double Barrel Reloaded—the Philippine National Police’s anti-drug initiative, not a B-movie—is pegged at over P900 million, or over 450 times this year’s war chest of P20 million.
But figures and amounts aren’t really the heart of the matter at hand. This was, more than anything, a demonstration of political force, and a show of the House of Representatives' support for the administration's policies.
Has Congress really sealed the CHR’s fate? Not quite yet, so put away those pitchforks (for now). In accordance with the Constitution, the budget for the CHR—as for any other government agencies—still has to go through another round at the Senate, and then through the Bicameral Conference Committee that is in charge of finalizing the overall budget.
So we’re at least two big steps away from effectively defunding the CHR, which means there’s hope yet. "Despite this defeat in the House, we look forward to defending our budget in the Senate, and we hope that reason, necessity, and rational minds will prevail both in the Senate and in the bicameral committee," CHR Chairman Chito Gascon told the press after Congress handed down its decision.
This isn't the first time this has happened. It's been a long-standing, if questionable, tradition in legislature that "whenever a congressman or senator feels offended by the behavior of an executive official, he threatens to reduce the budget of that official’s office to one peso," notes Manuel "Manolo" Quezon III. It's a practice that dates back to 1936; though when that happened, it precipitated a full-blown confrontation between President Manuel Quezon and the National Assembly.
More recently, this happened: "During the time of former president Cory Aquino, Congress slapped an anti-smuggling agency with a one-peso budget, after it had exposed the alleged involvement of some legislators in smuggling activities,” says Atty. Abigail Valte, former undersecretary with the Office of the President. Back then, Cory stepped in to rectify the situation. “If memory serves, Aquino allocated funds from the Office of the President to help the agency,” adds Valte.
It's also worth noting that the CHR isn't alone: the Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples were also slapped with the same budget yesterday.
Of course, this instance with the CHR might be different. "A normal president would launch a war w/ House over such a move. But different now," Manolo Quezon said in a series of tweets. "If [Congress] was serious, [it] would have to amend Const to eliminate CHR. It still might during ConAss...So, again, it's a bit middle finger from the Speaker and friends knowing no one can stop them, much less politically punish them."
Filipino citizens' anger was quick to spread online, with a few calling for the public to step in to fund the CHR. There's nothing in the rules that prohibits it, but it's certainly unprecedented. Valte says, “While departments and other instrumentalities of government can receive donations for other purposes (e.g. DSWD, for relief), I am unaware of any precedent that an office can accept donations to fund its operations.”
So where does that leave us? We have only to hold out while waiting for the motion’s next steps— first with Senate, then with the bicameral committee—and hope that reason catches up with our lawmakers somewhere along the way.