, October 8, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo has given a blanket clearance for her Cabinet secretaries and other officials to appear before Congress, but only for budget hearings and not for other investigations into various controversies hounding her administration, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said yesterday.

Bunye, who is also press secretary, said as far as permission to appear in other inquiries in the Senate or the House of Representatives is concerned, the matter would be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

"What we are saying is that as far as the budget hearing is concerned, although there is no written authority, we have a verbal go-signal from the President because if it is a budget hearing, we can attend," he said.

Bunye called on Congress to buckle down to work, at least until June next year, when the opposition would be free to file another impeachment complaint against the President.

An earlier impeachment case against Mrs. Arroyo was dismissed by administration allies, leading the opposition in the House to vow to pursue the junked allegations through congressional hearings.

Hearings on the proposed P1.053-trillion national budget for 2006 have begun in the House while the Senate is conducting three inquiries on various controversies in the Arroyo administration, including the Venable LLP lobby contract, the North Rail project and the so-called "Hello, Garci" tapes scandal.

Bunye attended the hearing on the proposed P48 million budget of the Office of the Press Secretary (OPS) in the House on Thursday but walked out after he was questioned on issues he said were unrelated to the expenditure program of his department.

He said the line of questioning posed by opposition congressmen was not related to the proposed OPS budget but more like "reviewing the impeachment."

"In my opinion, only those that concern the budget should be asked and we saw that the issue of impeachment proceedings was already given closure by the House so we believe that it (the questioning) was already out of line," Bunye said.

He, however, returned to the budget proceedings after a while and apologized to the lawmakers.

Malacañang is seeking the cooperation of House and Senate leaders for the crafting of ground rules that would govern the conduct of congressional probes and prevent a repeat of what happened to National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, who was rushed to hospital after being subjected to what Malacañang said was an insulting and demeaning grilling.

Gonzales was cited for contempt and is still under detention by the Senate sergeant-at-arms at the Philippine Heart Center.

The Palace said Executive officials invited to appear before Congress will be allowed to attend so long as the inquiries are truly in aid of legislation.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said many of the inquiries in the Senate are only aimed at destroying President Arroyo’s reputation.

He said he was informed that the resource persons invited at the Senate hearing last Thursday have agendas against the administration so the Palace saw fit not to allow invited officials to appear before the senators.

"(We) deemed it proper to wait for the dialogue (on ground rules) first so that the previous incident would not be repeated and that the hearings would not be a barrier for better relations between the executive branch and the legislative branch," Ermita said.

Agriculture Secretary Domingo Panganiban, Budget Secretary Romulo Neri, Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman and Trade Secretary Peter Favila failed to show up at Thursday’s Senate hearing investigating the alleged diversion of fertilizer funds to Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign kitty in 2004.

Ermita reiterated his call for the Senate to implement confidence-building measures, including freeing Gonzales from detention, as a first step in patching up differences between the two branches of government.

Ermita said Malacañang has prepared a draft of the ground rules so any meeting between the Executive and Legislative branches would be worthwhile.

"We really want to have understanding and maybe it is important (to have) sincerity and goodwill on... both sides to achieve this," he said. "We hope to have these so that everything will turn out fine once the dialogue pushes through."

Presidential Political Adviser Gabriel Claudio said talks are now underway for the Senate and the Palace to come up with these ground rules. No date has been set for the meeting, but he said this will push through even as the Supreme Court has yet to decide on the legality of Executive Order 464.

Citing the principle of separation of powers between co-equal branches of government, Mrs. Arroyo issued EO 464 last Sept. 28 prohibiting Cabinet members, subordinate civilian officials as well as military and police officials from appearing in congressional investigations without her prior approval. — With Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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