Congress split on CHR issue

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THE Senate and the House of Representatives headed for a collision Thursday, with senators vowing to restore the budget of the Commission on Human Rights that the House had slashed to P1,000 for 2018, while congressmen said they would not give up the power of the purse 

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said he expected members of the majority and minority blocs to join forces to restore the CHR’s proposed P678-million budget for 2018.

He noted that even President Rodrigo Duterte’s staunch allies in the Senate would not agree to the P1,000 allocation for the agency next year.

Pimentel, a close ally and party mate of Duterte in the ruling PDP-Laban, and whose elder sister, Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana, is a commissioner in the CHR, said the senators believed the agency deserved more than P1,000.

“We in the Senate believe the CHR deserves more than P1,000. They deserve around P600 million,” he said.

The separate House and the Senate versions of the General Appropriations Bill will be scrutinized in the bicameral conference committee to reconcile conflicting provisions.

If the House maintains its hardline stance on the CHR budget, there could be a deadlock in the bicameral conference committee, which in turn would lead to a reenacted budget, Pimentel said.

In such a situation, the 2017 budget would also serve as the national spending plan for 2018—which means the CHR would be allocated P725 million, even more than the P678 million proposed for next year.

Pimentel also said if the President vetoes the budget, Congress can override the veto by a two-thirds vote per chamber.

Pimentel refused to answer questions about the CHR chairman, Chito Gascon, who is apparently the target of the administration’s ire, or suggestions that the House might restore the agency’s budget if Gascon resigns.

CHR BUDGET DENOUNCED. Commission on Human Rights Commissioner Roberto Cadiz (left), Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David (center) and former CHR Commissioner Loretta Anne Rosales hold a news conference Thursday to denounce the P1,000 budget for the commission passed by the House of Representatives for 2018. Lino Santos

Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, meanwhile, said it was possible for people to give 5 percent of their taxes to the CHR.

“We want Filipinos to get involved in governance and the budget process. The People’s Fund Bill gives them the chance to do that,” said Aquino, referring to a bill he filed July 20, 2016.

Aquino made the pronouncement after a movement under the hashtag #GiveMyTaxToCHR began to gain momentum.

Senators Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Zubiri and Grace Poe said they believed leaving the CHR with a budget of P1,000 was tantamount to abolishing it.

Pacquiao, a staunch ally of the President, surmised that lawmakers were only trying to send a message to the CHR, which has consistently attacked the administration’s policies.

He added that the human rights body should not allow itself to be used by politicians.

Zubiri said that as a constitutional body mandated to uphold human rights, the CHR deserves a working budget, which was in the spending plan that Duterte submitted to Congress.

In the Senate, Zubiri said he will work for the restoration of the CHR budget. He also said he was proud of his brother, Rep. Manuel F. Zubiri of Bukidnon, for voting against the budget cut.

Poe said the CHR should be assisted, not penalized.

“There are a lot of things that need to be investigated. Especially with the war on drugs and other concerns,” she said.

Other allies of the President who promised to oppose the budget slash were Senators Panfilo Lacson, Richard Gordon, Joel Villanueva, JV Ejercito, Ralph Recto, Francis Escudero, Sherwin Gatchalian and Nancy Binay.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said five other members of the minority bloc—Aquino, Senators Francis Pangilinan, Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes would support moves to restore the CHR budget.

“We believe that the CHR plays a very critical role in this government particularly in light of the numerous killings in the campaign against illegal drugs, most especially those involving the death of teenagers such as Kian Lloyd delos Santos,” Drilon said.

Poe reminded the government to observe the “balance of power” as she defended the existence of the CHR. 

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III was the lone voice against restoring the CHR budget, saying those who did not agree with the policies of the President should resign.

Like Duterte, he said the CHR “had it coming” because of its constant criticism of the war on drugs.

He said Gascon is free to leave if he does not agree with the policies of the President.

“Stop barking at the President or the policies of the government. That the policy of the President. If you don’t like it, you can leave,” he added. 

On Tuesday night, the House voted 119-32 in favor of giving the CHR, which has criticized the Duterte administration’s war on drugs due to the high number of fatalities, a measly P1,000 budget.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez on Thursday said the House would not give up its power of the purse to the Senate.

His pronouncement came as the House approved on second reading the proposed 2018 national budget that allocates only P1,000 to the CHR.

Under the Constitution, Alvarez said, the House is vested with the power of the purse and that is why all appropriations measures originate exclusively in the chamber.

Alvarez, however, said he was open to a compromise at the bicameral conference committee.

Alvarez defended the position of the House to allocate P1,000 budget for its failure to perform its mandate to protect the human rights of all Filipinos.

Duterte and his allies have complained that the CHR has not spoken out against human rights abuses by communist rebels or terrorists, and has done nothing to protect the rights of innocent victims of crime, particularly those that are drug-related.

Alvarez said that as representatives of the people, the House has the responsibility to hold CHR accountable for not doing its job.

Alvarez recalled that during the appropriations committee hearing on CHR’s budget, he asked Gascon if CHR is performing its visitation duty on jails to ensure that prisoners’ rights are protected. Alvarez said Gascon admitted he has visited opposition Senator Leila de Lima in her cell but had not done the same for other prisoners.

“He said no, he did not have time, and there were other commissioners who could do that,” Alvarez said in Filipino. “So why is he being selective? Who is politicking?”

Gascon served as director general of the Liberal Party of which De Lima is a member.

Alvarez said he does not mind the bashing of people who were outraged over the P1,000 budget the House gave to the CHR.

“We don’t care if there is a group of people who are angry at us. What is important to us is that we are doing our work as representatives,” he said.

The CHR on Thursday urged the House to reconsider its position, with Commissioner Karen Dumpit saying they will make an appeal to Congress.

She said the move of Congress to cut the agency’s budget was designed to pressure Chairman Chito Gascon to step down.

“The Speaker [Pantaleon Alvarez] already made known to everybody that if Chairman Chito resigns then he would probably give us stable budget,” she added. With Rio N. Araja

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