The Long View: Impotent reassurances

Impotent reassurances
By Manuel L. Quezon III

A US congressman, Silvestre Reyes, says there would be no cut in US military assistance to the Philippines. The AFP turned cartwheels in delight. The blog Uniffors ( says that the celebration is mistaken.

Uniffors says the two committees that count the most in the US Congress are Appropriations and Ways and Means. The power of American congressional officials is best demonstrated by listing the congressmen entitled to an office within the US Capitol itself: the Speaker, Majority and Minority Leaders, Majority and Minority Whips, and the Appropriations Chairman. The pinnacle of the House hierarchy.

As Uniffors puts it, “They have the final say on income and spending. At the end of the day, all other congressional committees are debating clubs.” Since Appropriations wields the power of the purse (what to spend; Ways and Means decides who and what to tax), all the other committees can only authorize expenditures for inclusion in the proposed budget. As Uniffors writes, “Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the US legislative process would know that authorization and appropriation are … different … An authorization committee like [the] armed services [committee] does not order the appropriations committee what to appropriate. An authorization is only a suggestion as far as the omnipotent appropriations committee is concerned.”

Uniffors points out that Filipino observers eager to figure out how American budgeting for the Philippines is being done have to bear in mind that “We can be sure of money only when the appropriation committee APPROPRIATES and EARMARKS a certain amount. Without a congressional earmark, the State Department can exercise discretion over how it will spend its budget from Congress.”

As it is, Uniffors says what the US State Department has asked for, and what it’s requested for Fiscal Year 2008, “represents a lot less than what it asked for in previous years.” Therefore, the executive department in the States has made its position clear: less spending for the Philippines. On the other hand, the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which directly handles funding for the Philippines, could find ways around what the President of the United States intends to spend, finding ways to increase Philippine-oriented expenditures. The Appropriations Committee relies on the judgement of the Subcommittee.

But here’s the clincher.

The Foreign Operations Bill has already been marked-up (the earmarks have been made). It is now in conference committee, being hammered out between the US House and Senate. So it is in this context – that Appropriations matters the most; that direct involvement in expenses for the Philippines would be in the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations; that the Foreign Operations Bill is in an advanced state of discussion, and changes favorable to the Philippines require congressmen with clout intervening in the process – that we should look at the recent visitors from the US House.

Were those who junketed to Mindanao congressmen of consequence? If, as it reported, the 5-person delegation was composed mainly of Republicans, then it would really have been a junket and nothing more, since the Republicans are the minority in the House. However, the delegation was primarily a majority party (Democrat) group, so let’s take a closer look.

Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) is only the sixth member, on the Democrat side, of the Committee on Armed Services (not chairman as reported by our paper). He was the only member quoted, and perhaps that has to do more with his talking first and thinking later. He has had his fair share of foot-in-mouth disease episodes (his Wikipedia entry says he’s “been criticized for his lack of knowledge of the most basic of facts consequential to the war on terror”). So can he walk the talk in Congress?

As for the others, New York Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D) says of himself (on his website) that he sits on the Financial Services committee, which is not particularly powerful, and on International Relations, which does have its junket-related perks. So he can junket but does he matter?

Maryland Rep. Charles A. Ruppersberger III (D) is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His being a Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government does make him one of the members of the delegation that possibly counts – but not for Philippine interests.

New Jersey Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R), also sits on the House Appropriations Committee and on two appropriations subcommittees: Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, of which he is the Ranking Member (that is, senior minority member), and Defense. He is also a member of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. His committees bear little relevance for the country.

New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson (R), a US Air Force veteran, sits on committees that have little bearing on Philippine-related budgeting, and as a Republican facing ethics committee questions (she’s implicated in trying to influence state prosecutors to investigate Democrats), she will have little clout when it comes to lobbying senior chairmen and members.

Put together, what does the delegation represent? The one quoted in the papers is a congressional lightweight; the rest lack the seniority or the committee memberships that would put them in a position to go over the head of the subcommittee on foreign operations at this late date, and thus, significantly affect appropriations, including finding ways around the limits for Philippine-related spending the Bush administration has identified (and reduced). It seems the real purpose of the junket was to wave to the troops and look into intelligence-related matters, which are more fully related to American interests than shared RP-US defense concerns.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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