, February 13, 2006, (STAR) By Christina Mendez - Senate President Franklin Drilon prodded President Arroyo yesterday to recall Executive Order 464, which some quarters warn could trigger a constitutional crisis.

As he welcomed Malacañang’s decision to allow Cabinet members to attend Senate budget hearings this week, Drilon expressed hope that the administration would withdraw EO 464 altogether to avoid a direct confrontation with Congress over the latter’s powers to scrutinize the national budget and investigate any abuses of the executive department.

"I am hopeful that Malacañang would withdraw EO 464 because it is patently illegal and unconstitutional and goes against the very principles of public transparency and accountability as enshrined in our Constitution," he said.

Drilon said Mrs. Arroyo must realize that EO 464 has no legal, political and constitutional basis.

He said those who talked Mrs. Arroyo into signing the executive order "did the President, our democratic system and the entire Filipino nation a great disservice."

On Saturday, Malacañang said Mrs. Arroyo had agreed to allow Cabinet and other executive officials to attend today’s Senate hearings on the budget.

The Palace made the decision after 17 senators led by Drilon, concerned about an open confrontation between Malacañang and the Senate, asked the Supreme Court (SC) to restrain Mrs. Arroyo from enforcing EO 464 barring government officials from appearing at Senate or House hearings without her clearance.

Drilon also debunked yesterday the claim of presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor that the senators from the majority and minority blocs were more interested in raising political questions rather than monetary matters.

"The claim that the Senate was politicizing the budget hearings with the intention of destabilizing the government is another outright lie consistently being peddled by this paranoid administration," he said.

Drilon defended the Senate’s move to pursue its investigations in aid of legislation, saying that the embarrassing questions regarding the P728-million fertilizer fund scam, the highly questionable use of the P35-billion Marcos wealth, the overpriced $500-million Northrail project and the abuses of Presidential Commission on Good Government officials are directly related to the national budget.

"These are basically questions about how public funds were being utilized by the executive department," Drilon said.

He said most of the questions being asked during the hearings were triggered by Commission on Audit (COA) reports indicating questionable, illegal and irregular utilization of public funds by Arroyo administration officials during the past years.

"If the Senate budget hearings have become part of destabilization efforts against this government, then I suggest that (Mrs.) Arroyo should start asking why COA wants to destabilize her administration," Drilon said.

He explained that it was the COA which reported that the liquid fertilizer used in the Ginintuan Masaganang Ani (GMA) program was overpriced by at least P127 million.

Drilon also disagreed with the observation that EO 464 was issued by Malacañang to humiliate him.

"The Arroyo administration will not gain anything by humiliating the Senate president," Drilon said. "Its officials are simply under the illusion that they can ensure her political survival if she can make all these nagging questions about widespread corruption in government disappear."

Drilon said the Constitution mandates public transparency and accountability as well as a system of checks and balances in government.

"The Senate has a job to do and it has no intention of failing the Filipino people," he said. Repeal ‘must be done’ Senators Edgardo Angara, Manuel Roxas II, and Jamby Madrigal remained unaffected by the Palace’s latest decision.

Angara said the Palace should repeal the order to avoid any more confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government. Angara also did not view Mrs. Arroyo’s move as "reconciliatory."

"This is what must be done. Not only the Senate or the House (of Representatives) will benefit from it, but also the department heads themselves because they can defend their budgets, and justify them," Angara said in a radio interview over dzBB.

While he welcomed Mrs. Arroyo’s move, he said EO 464 should be repealed because it "upsets the fundamental balance between" the executive and legislative branches of government.

Angara stressed that each branch of government should respect the independence of the others. He said an essential function of Congress is not only to pass laws, but to gather information through public inquiries and investigation.

"This executive order not only affected the balance of government, but it also put a gag on public information," he said.

Senators earlier warned that EO 464 may affect the passage of the P1-trillion budget for 2006, which would mean a reenacted budget for this year.

Angara said having a reenacted budget is not good for the country, noting that the government had to function on a reenacted budget for three of the past five years.

A reenacted budget is "very destructive" to the government’s ability to deliver basic services, particularly to the poor, he said.

Roxas said while he welcomes Defensor’s statement that the Palace does not favor a constitutional fight with the Senate, the government should instead focus on improving the economy.

Roxas enumerated ways to improve the economy: strengthen the peso and lower the cost of basic goods, particularly those with a high import content such as petrol, medicines, milk, and flour; have lower treasury bill rates to lower interest charges on home mortgages, appliance and other consumer loans and on working capital loans of businesses, particularly small and medium-scale enterprises.

"This lower cost of doing business translates to more jobs for our people," Roxas said.

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the Senate will do its work regardless of what Mrs. Arroyo thinks or does.

"She probably realizes now that she has no right whatsoever to constrict power of purse of (the) Senate as part of Congress by prohibiting Cabinet members from appearing before it," Pimentel said.

He said the only reason for Mrs. Arroyo’s "contortions" is that she is scared that more anomalies under her presidency would be unearthed and she would go to jail for it.

Pimentel said the Palace should not impose any condition or limitation once Cabinet members are allowed to attend before the Senate budget hearings.

He explained that the questions asked by senators are all related to the budget, including those involving issues that hound a certain department.

Pro-administration Sen. Ralph Recto said the lifting of the Palace boycott of Senate budget hearings should pave the way for the chamber’s approval of a bill granting a P1,000 monthly "additional allowance" to national government workers.

Budget and finance officials who will be summoned to the Senate to explain funding details of the bill can appear without the threat of Malacañang’s censure hanging over their heads, Recto said.

Recto said the President promised this bill as the government’s Valentine’s Day gift to its workers.

"If EO 464 will continue to be in effect, she will be seen as boycotting her own pet measure," he said.

Another reason for Malacañang’s change of heart, according to Recto, is that the House plenary debate on the P1.053 trillion national budget will start today.

"The irrationality of its position would have been exposed if Cabinet officials are allowed to attend the House debate on the budget but are banned from attending budget hearings in the Senate," he said.

Although the Senate-Palace cold war over EO 464 has yet to thaw, Recto said this should not be invoked by any party as a reason to "defeat or delay" the approval of the House bill on additional allowances.

"Government employees are not parties to the quarrel so why should they be casualties of war ?" Recto said.

To expedite the bill’s passage in the Senate, Recto said the national treasurer should send over first thing this morning a certification that the measure is backed up by available cash.

Recto, however, recognized fears by some of his colleagues that the Senate approval of the P13.1 billion additional allowance bill "may seal the reenactment of the 2005 budget."

"I hope that after baiting the Senate to pass the (additional allowance) bill, the House will not lose interest in passing the (2006) budget. We owe our people a new budget that will itemize how government will reimburse them for the taxes they have paid," he said.

Recto said the additional allowance bill, if passed into law, will serve as a "safety net" should the House fail to send its approved version of the 2006 budget bill to the Senate.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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