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The Third House and the 2008 Philippine Budget: What Gives?

After the sound and fury of press releases and public statements about pork in the 2008 budget last week, all is silent. Not a peep or a whisper has emanated from the Bicameral Committee or the Third House. In the meantime, the 2007 budget is still in effect. The Department of Budget and Management assumes that the reenacted budget will operate till the end of February 2008.

Why is the Bicameral Committee called The Third House? After all, there are only two official Houses of Congress—the Lower House composed of representatives and the Upper House, composed of the senators. The Bicameral Committee is called the Third House because it crafts the final version of the 2008 budget which is submitted to the President.

The sessions of the representatives and the senators are conducted under the harsh glare of public scrutiny. Hearings are conducted in public and are covered by multimedia up to the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, the negotiations and horse trading in The Third House are traditionally conducted behind closed doors. No minutes of meetings are recorded. Hence, as the Third House, the Bicameral Committee is just as powerful, if not more so, than the other two Houses who are constantly under the public eye.

The House of Representatives has already submitted the General Appropriations Bill (House Bill No. 2454). On the other hand, the Senate has already approved its version of the 2008 budget. The members of the Bicameral Committee have been named. Other than the acrimonious debates on pork and VAT, the public does not know what is going on.

It was announced last week that Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile of the Senate Committee on Finance and Rep. Edcel Lagman of the House Committee on Appropriations were already meeting. So far, there is no news about the Bicam. It will be recalled that last year, the Committee announced that it will meet in January 2008.

A member of the Bicameral Committee says that even if the Enrile and Lagman are talking, their agreements still need to be confirmed by The Third House. So far, there has been no notice of the January meeting.

The dynamics in the Third House is very interesting. The Senate is supposed to be dominated by the opposition. However, one of its most important committees, the Senate Committee on Finance, is headed by an administration senator (Enrile), along with two co-chairs who are also with the administration (Santiago and Angara). On the other hand, the Appropriations Committee is headed by a member of the administration bloc (Lagman). However, the public pronouncements of Rep. Lagman on the Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI), the role of civil society in the budget process and the calculation of the debt service are not exactly aligned with administration positions.

In the meantime, what gives in the Third House?

Inconvenient truths about burning garbage

Yesterday was the usual lazy Saturday morning for this family living in a lower middle-class subdivision. Everyone was sleeping late. The grandmother had stayed up to 4:00 a.m. writing a paper and looked forward to sleeping the whole morning. The four-year old grandchild had no classes and was luxuriating in childish dreams and fantasies. The child's African love birds were also sleeping late because three stray cats tried to open their cage the night before.

Everyone's lazy Saturday was shattered when thick smelly black smoke floated into their house. The grandmother woke up because the foul odor of burning rubber made breathing difficult. The child and her mother started coughing. Ashes and cinders were coming in through the windows of their house.

It turned out that workers in the adjacent vacant lot were burning garbage. They had set up three bonfires: one huge pyre in the middle of the lot and two smaller ones right beside the wall of the house. The workers were clearing the lot of old tires accumulated for decades by the former lot owner, broken plastic houseware and bags, dead cats, dead rats, and decaying garbage. They also said they were trying to smoke out a snake who lived in the pile of garbage under a tree right next to the wall of the house.

When the irate, breathless grandmother warned the workers that burning garbage—especially rubber and plastic—is prohibited, they were bewildered. They did not know what the problem was all about. They were just minding their business, burning garbage in a privately owned lot!

Obviously, they had not heard of Al Gore or of the handsome senator's Clean Air Act. Or the songs of Joey Ayala, Asin and APO Hiking Society.

Fifteen years after the Rio Summit, countless international agreements, national laws, and barangay regulations, poems and songs about loving the environment, Filipinos continue to burn garbage. Perhaps it is a throwback to the provincial practice of sweeping yards and burning dried leaves, cooking over wood fires, and lighting bonfires in school. And kaingin, of course!

There are places where the environment is fiercely protected. In the mini-forest of Silliman University, the burning of leaves which cover the forest floor is strictly prohibited. When a huge snake was caught in the university housing area, national scientist Dr. Angel Alcala ordered that it be brought back to its habitat in the mountains of Valencia.

For the "politically correct," it is very easy to assume that environmental awareness is very high in the Philippines. There is still a great deal to be done beyond law, art, literature, and song. Campaigns should not be limited to the educated and the informed. For a start, local governments who are proud of their environmental programs should start with the backyards of their constituents.

Where there is fire, surely there is smoke.