Beautification in a time of crisis?

House facelift to cost taxpayers P1 billion; fund source a puzzle

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s latest report looks into the massive renovation project at the House of Representatives. While initial reports placed the tag price at P200 million, the PCIJ discovered that the prettified House will actually cost taxpayers some P1 billion.

THE 14TH Congress will open its second regular session on Monday with a spit-polished image, amid massive renovation efforts for the Marcos-era Batasang Pambansa building, home to the House of Representatives.

THE Batasang Pambansa, which is home to the House of Representatives, has undergone a multimillion-peso makeover in time for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 8th state of the nation address on Monday, July 28. [photo by Tita Valderama]

Largely cosmetic, the frenzied makeover has secured an initial funding of P200 million from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but once completed will cost taxpayers almost a billion pesos.

About 400 laborers worked round the clock in the last six weeks to rush the prettified House for Arroyo’s eighth state of the nation address on Monday.

To be sure, there is no specific funding in the 2008 budget for the House renovation project launched by Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles, a rabid Arroyo ally and House Speaker of just six months.

The reconstruction binge started with just the need to repair the canopy of the South Wing lobby that was damaged by a powerful bomb blast in November 2007. The initial bill: P9.7 million sourced from funds of the House in February 2008.

In May, Nograles requested and days later secured “assistance from PGMA” in the amount of P200 million to cover the repair, repainting, upgrade, and landscaping of the main and North Wing buildings of the House.


Where Arroyo sourced the money, even the leaders of the House are not sure. Whether the amount is covered by a Special Allocation Release Order (SARO), as it should be under the procurement law, is not clear.

A senior budget official says the agency had not issued a SARO for the House, but House officials said the P200 million is covered by a SARO although they do not know its funding source.

Artemio Adasa Jr., deputy secretary general for operations and chair of the House Bids and Awards Committee, says the beautification project has two messages: the Nograles House enjoys Arroyo’s full support and represents “new leadership, new face, new radiance.”

“The decision to renovate was done in February… but we anticipated na kung may pera mag-extend, nagkataon, at may target tayong SONA. Instead of gloomy because of the bombing, now we have a vibrant Congress,” Adasa adds.

More, more, more

Already the House had disbursed P99.7 million for the the initial structural repair work but wants to spend more this year, even without full appropriations cover:

  • The House engineering department is already finalizing the general services request for Phase 2 of the project that will cost P110 million.
  • A new four-storey South Wing annex building will rise at a cost of P300 million, courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Highways. (The project was started under Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr, Nograles’s predecessor.)
  • Two units of airconditioned buses with 55-seat capacity acquired in April 2008 at P5.8 million each, or P11.6 million in all.
  • Eight laptop units will be awarded in August at a cost of P1.2 million, or for a curiously expensive price of P151,950 per unit.
  • About 30 public comfort rooms worth up to P700,000 each, or at least P200 million in all had been reconstructed.
  • A total of 135 units of fire extinguishers, including 100 units with 20-pound capacity worth P20,720 each, inclusive of 12 percent value-added tax, or over P2 million had been purchased.
  • A P15-million biometric electronic voting system for members of the House to be supported by the “e-government fund” being managed by the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) under the Office of the President.

On drawing board

No absolute amounts have yet been disclosed by the House for other supplies and services already bidded out or on the drawing board, notably:

  • The recent purchase of two ambulance units for the House medical clinic.
  • The hiring of 60 private security guards for six months (July to December 2008) to complement the civilian Legislative Security Bureau (LSB) personnel under the House, and a contingent of the Special Action Forces (SAF) of the Philippine National Police.
  • The construction of a new building near the Batasan flagpole to house the library and archives, and museum of Congress.
  • The full replacement of the dilapidated condenser pipes of the main building’s centralized airconditioning system.
  • Electrical rewiring and sewerage repair of the the Batasan complex.
  • The replacement of four service elevator units, or two units each in the North and South Wings.
  • The acquisition of more closed-circuit television surveillance cameras and other security equipment to further secure the complex.

Form, not substance?

It was during the 2007 Christmas break of Congress, that Nograles took up the challenge to oust five-time Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.

STREAMER announces the proposed four-storey South Wing Annex Building. [photo by Tita Valderama

Backed by lawmakers loyal to Arroyo, Nograles, ex-majority leader of De Venecia, on February 5 took control and pledged to pursue long-overdue reforms for the House of Representatives that has proved consistent in one thing — scoring low in its public approval rating.

Six months on the job, Nograles is showing that more than the substance of reforms, he is given to form and big spending.

Apart from his reconstruction efforts, Nograles also recently disbursed additional monetary benefits for about 3,000 House employees, and promised further to raise their salaries and benefits at par with employees of the Senate.

Speech pitches

Ironically amid the grandeur of his renovation project, Nograles will convene the second regular session of the House on Monday with a strong pitch for the values of hard work, simple living, transparency, and integrity in use of public funds.

An advanced copy of Nograles’s speech obtained by the PCIJ enrolls these words of the Speaker: “Let us give back to the government and to our people every minute of the hours paid for by our salaries and other compensation in hard work and the performance of our mandated tasks.”

“The worst form of thievery and waste of government resources,” according to Nograles’s speech, “is being paid for not having worked.”

Nograles’s speech continues: “Let us use resources of government judiciously and wisely. Every centavo must count. Funds must be spent where they are most needed and where they can bring the most benefit to the greater number of our citizens.”

“Let us ensure that public funds are used only for public purposes. Let their use be transparent and those allowed to use them, as well as those who authorize their use, be fully accountable to the people.”


Why the Nograles House launched a massive reconstruction program without firm and full appropriations support raises a lot of questions, according to University of the Philippines Prof. Leonor Briones.

Amid rising oil and commodity prices, depressed wages and joblessness, “at this point in time, every financial outlay matters, and calls for transparency and accountability grow stronger,” says Briones, who heads the civil society groups Social Watch Philippines and Alternative Budget Initiative.

“In the final analysis, it is not how beautiful Congress is but how committed and efficient it is in being a co-equal branch, in its fiscalizing role,” Briones adds. That Nograles got P200 million from President Arroyo to co-finance the renovation project does not speak well of the House.

Briones adds: “There’s so much money under the control of the President, about 70 percent of the budget. Congress should be held to account for allowing the Executive to go overboard with its prerogatives.”

All appropriations, tax and tariff should emanate from the House, which is designated in law to exercise “the power of the purse.” Given this role, Briones says, “ang papel ng Congress dapat distant. Will its customary independence be compromised with all these ‘loving’ activities going on?”

Speaker Nograles says the long years of disrepair of the Batasan complex have made the renovation project necessary.

“After 31 years we have to do repairs…approved last February but implemented only during long break now,” explains Nograles in a text message to PCIJ.

“We can’t schedule/predict storm or crisis but repairs (were) long overdue and long-scheduled for (the congressional) recess,” he says in response to criticisms that the renovation was ill-timed as thousands of people suffer from the heavy damage of typhoon Frank, including hundreds who lost their relatives in the sinking of Sulpicio Lines’ Princess of the Stars in Romblon.

THE foyer at the Speaker’s conference room, adorned with trellises. [photo by Tita Valderama]

For basic change

Muntinlupa City Rep. Rufino Rozzano Biazon says he does not question the need to repair the leaking roof and the damaged South Wing entrance canopy, but at this time of austerity and economic difficulties, renovation of such magnitude does not seem to be practical.

Okay ‘yung renovation pero sana more basic lang. ‘Yung hip designs and color, in five years outdated na ‘yan,” says the congressman who toured the US Congress in June for the first time.

Kung gagastos din lang ang Congress, it should be on an expense that will add up to the productivity of the members like office equipment. ‘Yun sana ang unahin,” he asserts, citing that congressmen’s individual offices had been issued only one or two computer units with programs that are becoming obsolete.

“I wish the expense were (made) on something more practical that will directly contribute to the productivity of the House,” Biazon says, noting how the US Congress has kept the simple design of Capitol Hill and the American lawmakers’ offices.

Former House Secretary General Roberto Nazareno, who dropped by his old office at the basement of the main building that had undergone renovation, says in jest that the staff should now become more productive because of the modern design that is “conducive to hard labor.”

House deputy secretary general Artemio Adasa Jr. assures that the changes under the Nograles leadership would certainly go beyond aesthetics.

Critics, he says, need not worry about pressing economic problems that need funding because these are being attended to by appropriate agencies.

The physical restructuring of the House, he adds, would lead to higher productivity as already shown in the first six months of Nograles’s leadership.

Since February this year, the House has churned out 287 bills, of which nine had become law, including the P1.2-trillion budget for 2008, the cheaper medicines law, and the measure granting tax relief to individual taxpayers, all under the Nograles speakership.

No answers

What remains unanswered are questions about the source of funds for the renovation project.

“We don’t really know where is the source, but it came from the Office of the President, and the very purpose is to renovate the House which has not been repaired since 30 years ago,” Adasa says.

Under Republic Act No. 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act Congress passed in 2003, no bidding of any government project or contract may be started, without the procuring agency first securing a SARO from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) that should certify the availability and source of funds.

As well, the project bidding and awards process seem flawed.

The P9.7-million contract to renovate the South Wing canopy and lobby supported by House funds was bidded out in February.

In March, a supplemental bid bulletin was posted on the House website stating that two covered activities “will be undertaken by the House” but were reflected in the contractor’s budget — P189,000 for the “provision of new plants and re-landscaping of the existing plant boxes at the SW (South Wing) entrance area,” and P657,160 for the “re-landscaping of the SW Rotonda (sic).”

The bid bulletin directed the contractors to specify these amounts in their contract price.

Repair work sked

Phase 1 of the renovation covered repair and repainting of the roof of the main building, repair of gutters and waterproofing, replacement of downspouts and rehabilitation of drainage systems.

PHOTO gallery of House Speakers. [photo by Tita Valderama]

The main building exterior lobby was also retiled, enhanced and repainted. The press working area at the basement adjacent to the plenary hall was improved.

Repairs also included putting aluminum cladding at the main building’s front and rear entrances and parapets, as well as the North and South Wing exteriors, stone finishing of the front and rear facades and sidings of the main building.

The damaged South Wing entrance canopy was reconstructed, cleared and repainted, as well as the North Wing lobby. The kitchen of the South lounge, where legislators take their meals, was also renovated.

Exterior electrical fixtures were repaired and flood lights installed around the building.

The rear car park was widened, and the helipad was repaired and repainted.

“First priority (are the) hallways, comfort rooms and roof leaks down spout, etc.,” Nograles says.

There were metal cladding installed at the façade and the walls to strengthen the building and keep construction debris from falling, according to House secretary general Marilyn Barua-Yap.

P700,000 per toilet

About 30 public comfort rooms with three to five cubicles each on the ground and second floor lobbies were reconstructed, with glossy tiles and modern bowls and sinks, making these comparable to hotel facilities.

Each toilet supposedly cost as much P700,000.

Asked about the costing, Adasa says some comfort rooms indeed cost that much because damaged toilet bowls and sinks were replaced, and the floor and walls were tiled. Other toilets now have a “washing area” for Muslim visitors and House members.

The walls leading to the main lobby that serves as a gallery for photographs of House speakers were painted neon green and the other side leading to the side entrances to the plenary hall now sport an orange coat.

The lighting system for the building was replaced with energy-saving fluorescent bulbs.

The improvised storage room for ballot boxes in the allegedly rigged 2004 elections was removed from the South Wing lobby and returned to the Commission on Elections upon an order from the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, Adasa says.

The area had been cleared, re-tiled and enclosed with glass panels to serve as a social hall for parties, photo or product exhibits and other events, according to Yap.

The medical/dental clinic and legislative research office that used to be located at the North Wing lobby were temporarily moved to meeting rooms at the Mitra building next to the North Wing. These will soon be housed permanently at the covered multi-purpose building near the food court, Yap says.

THE landscaped South Wing rotunda. [photo by Tita Valderama]

She notes that since 1977, the Batasang Pambansa building had only one minor renovation in 1999.

“Except for the retiling of the interior lobby of the main building and refurbishing of the session hall during the incumbency of then Speaker Manuel Villar Jr., there has not been any major repair and rehabilitation of the building and its facilities for the past 30 years,” she says.

The massive renovation project under Nograles puts to question the priorities of the House, especially as the people await Arroyo’s SONA. According to Prof. Briones: “the SONA is not only about the President but also about Congress. There is a question of transparency here. Where does the funding come from?”

“Is it coming from the President’s Special Purpose Funds? Or are they going to transfer or postpone scheduled projects to accommodate the need to beautify Congress?” she asks.