(STAR) By Jess Diaz - The Senate and the House of Representatives adjourned for the Christmas holidays last night without approving the proposed P1.415-trillion national budget for 2009.

Since lawmakers will return to work in the middle of next month, this year’s P1.2-trillion budget will be deemed reenacted on Jan. 1. The government will initially operate on the basis of a lower spending program until the 2009 outlay is approved.

As in previous years, the two chambers of Congress had passed divergent versions of the annual appropriations bill.

Last Tuesday, a bicameral conference committee tasked to iron out the two chambers’ differences met for exploratory talks and agreed to meet again yesterday.

But committee members scrapped their scheduled second meeting as they deemed it already impossible to resolve their differences or to make Congress to approve the budget before last night’s adjournment.

Quirino Rep. Junie Cua, appropriations committee chairman and head of the House panel in the conference committee, told The STAR that they would try to settle their dispute on the budget during the Christmas break.

“There is consensus on general principles, but we are bogged down on the details,” he said without elaborating.

Asked about the amount of Senate’s “insertions” in the 2009 budget, Cua said, “I have not seen their version.”

Budgetary insertions are usually the cause of conflict on the annual outlay between senators and congressmen.

There are reports that senators have inserted a P30-billion “economic stimulus fund” in the budget.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, senior vice chairman of the appropriations committee, noted a “great disparity” between the Senate and House versions of the budget.

“We’re back to the President’s proposal, we are back to square one,” he said.

He said the operation of the bureaucracy starting Jan. 1 would not be disrupted since the government would run on a reenacted 2008 budget.

“What are usually released at the start of the year are salaries and part of maintenance and operating funds,” he added.

Since President Arroyo took over from former President Joseph Estrada in 2001, her government has operated on reenacted budgets for at least four years.

Three years ago, when Franklin Drilon was Senate president, senators voted to scrap some P8 billion in Kilos Asenso and Kalayaan ng Barangay funds, which they considered to be part of tens of billions in presidential pork.

The President, with the support of the House, insisted on keeping the funds. The Senate did not budge. The result: no budget for that year.

Bicameral conferences on the budget are usually shrouded in mystery and held in secret. Media coverage is banned. Budgetary insertions are exposed months after the appropriations bill is enacted, if they are ever exposed at all.

For instance, the controversial P200-million insertion of Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. in the 2008 outlay was exposed only a few months ago by opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

The controversy has led to the ouster of Villar as Senate president.

The lack of transparency in bicameral meetings prompted Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III yesterday to file Resolution 912, in which he called for “more transparency and accountability” in Senate-House talks on the budget.

He proposed that these meetings be opened to the media and that minutes of the meeting and other details like schedules or proponents of insertions be made public.

“The people have a right to know what is going on in these secret meetings. They should not be kept in the dark. After all, it is their money that we are talking about here,” Guingona said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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