The government of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. this week submitted a record 5.268 trillion pesos ($94 billion) 2023 budget to the House of Representatives. This is the highest-ever spending proposal sent to Congress.
Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Amenah F. Pangandaman described the proposed bill as “proactive and resilient… designed to withstand future risks, challenges, and shocks.” She added that the budget reflects priority sectors of the Marcos government which include education, infrastructure development, health, agriculture, and social safety nets.
The projects covered by the budget boost the infrastructure legacy of the previous government of President Rodrigo Duterte, which accrued huge debts for the construction of a mega subway, regional airports, railways, and farm-to-market roads. Marcos has pledged to support these projects under his own infrastructure program, which is themed “Build, Better, More.”
The DBM said the education cluster has the highest allocation in the budget, as mandated by the 1987 Constitution. It also raised the budgetary support to the health sector as part of the continuing pandemic response. The funding for agriculture seeks to promote food self-sufficiency. It is noteworthy to mention that Marcos has decided to appoint himself as agriculture secretary to put more focus on programs intended to benefit farmers. Marcos also expanded the social pension and cash transfer programs of his predecessors.
House Speaker Martin G. Romualdez, a cousin of the president, described the DBM bill as a “Unity National Budget.” Marcos, whose family was deposed in a People Power uprising in 1986, ran on a platform of promoting unity.
“We will make sure that each bit of spending will contribute to our goal of reigniting the fires of our economic forges and at least propel the country to reach economic growth at pre-pandemic levels,” Romualdez said.
He vowed to finish the budget deliberations before the end of September. What he didn’t mention was that the budget submission was delayed by almost a month. The budget bill is traditionally submitted a few days after the president has delivered his or her state of the nation address (SONA). Marcos’ SONA was held on July 25 but the DBM only sent the budget document on August 22.
Even if Marcos allies compose the majority in Congress, there could be intense discussions on questionable expenditures of several agencies, which could delay the original timetable for the passage of the budget bill. Lawmakers are expected to dig deeper into the alleged overpriced laptops for public school teachers, substandard protective equipment for hospital frontliners, and the controversial expenses of security forces enforcing the government’s counterinsurgency operations. The Senate has in fact begun an investigation into the anomalous procurement of outdated laptops by the Department of Education.
Minority lawmakers have pointed out that debt servicing represents the biggest expenditure of the government.
“The need to repeal the law on automatic appropriation for debt servicing has become more urgent as the public debt has become an albatross for the nation,” said House Deputy Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Representative France Castro. She asserted that the law prevents budget planners from allocating more funds to social services like education, health, and housing.
Aside from questioning the budget cuts of some hospitals and universities, Gabriela Women’s Party Congresswoman Arlene Brosas criticized the reduced budgetary outlay for the National Archives, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the National Library. She asked if this is part of the ongoing campaign to revise history and whitewash the notorious role of the Marcoses during the Martial Law dictatorship.
“This move seems to be a political statement from the Marcos Jr. administration that they do not care about history, and that they are hell-bent on doing whatever it takes to conceal the truth from the Filipinos,” Brosas said in a press release.
Independent think-tank Ibon Foundation summed up the weaknesses of the first budget bill of the Marcos government: “Import-dependent infrastructure, debt interest payments, and security forces are given far more importance than education, health, social welfare, farmers, and labor.
Both Houses of Congress need to pass the budget proposal by December or risk the re-enactment of this year’s budget, which could mean the failure to fund vital programs and services of the new government.