Who wants to be a millionaire?

Thu, 08/04/2005 - 00:00
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reprinted from reprinted with permission of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

IN 2002, taxpayers spent P939,472.47 every month on each senator and P429,601.79 on each congressman, based on published reports. Shocking as these amounts may sound, they reflect only part of what Filipinos pay for their legislators' upkeep. Government auditors themselves say they are in the dark over how Congress spends most of its money, in part because there is hardly any paper trail to help them scrutinize how lawmakers use public funds.

What they do know is this: On the average, the upkeep of legislators has risen 10 percent every year since 1994. In 1999, this leaped to as high as a 60-percent increase in the House and a 72-percent increase in the Senate compared to the previous year's.

The hefty rise was due to the fact that lawmakers gave themselves a raise. Since the early 1990s, it has legislated generous increases for its own budget, which includes not only the basic pay of the lawmakers and their staff, but also their travel expenses, allowances, expensesTheir basic salaries were upped that year. In addition, there were significant increases in the budget for foreign travel in both chambers as well as in local travel among congressmen.

Even as allocations for basic services such as education and public health have increased by only small increments in the last decade, Congress has used the power of the purse to put much more money into its own coffers.

Since the early 1990s, it has legislated generous increases for its own budget, which includes not only the basic pay of the lawmakers and their staff, but also their travel expenses, allowances, expenses of various congressional bodies, as well as the salaries of officers such as the Senate president and speaker of the House and the budgets of their respective offices.

From 1994 to 2003, the General Appropriations Act or GAA, which sets the national budget for a fiscal year, increased annually by an average of seven percent. In comparison, the House budget had an 11-percent average yearly increase; that of the Senate posted an average 13-percent rise.

In 2002, when the total national budget shrank by 14 percent, Congress raised its own budget -by 10 percent in the House and four percent in the Senate.

Yet the increasing sums for the legislature have not been matched by a rise in the number of laws passed. Since the 11th Congress, the legislative mill has churned slower and slower. Congress's efficiency hit an all-time low in the years 2001 to 2004, when the legislature approved a measly 76 bills, compared to an average of 400 to 500 laws enacted in previous three-year congressional terms.

The slide began in the 11th Congress, although it is the 12th Congress that deserves the slacker's prize. It boasts of a record low not only in the number of laws approved, but also in terms of the total number of bills filed. In addition, the percentage of bills filed to the number of bills passed is a mere one percent, compared to the three percent chalked up by earlier legislatures.

Before martial law, the Constitution fixed the annual compensation of senators and congressmen at P7,200 each, unless otherwise provided by law. The amount included per diems and other allowances, excluding only traveling expenses to and from their districts of congressmen, and to and from their places of residence of senators, when attending sessions of Congress.

There is no similar provision in the 1987 Constitution. Instead, the charter leaves it to the law (meaning the lawmakers themselves) to determine the salaries of members of Congress. It only prohibits any increase from taking effect until after the full term of all members of the Senate and the House approving such a raise has expired.

There is, however, a provision in the constitution that is supposed to guarantee the public access to information regarding the other sums legislators get from the government. That is why every last quarter of each year, the Commission on Audit (COA) publishes an "itemized list of amounts paid to expenses incurred" for each senator and for each congressman in a leading daily.

But the published COA lists apparently fall short of real Congress figures. The lists from 1994 to 2002, for example, represent only 47 percent of the total House budget published in the GAA and 26 percent of the Senate budget. Where the rest of the budgets went is unclear, because COA provides no such details.

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