The Cabinet’s Elusive Decision

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In plain words, it is no longer clear what the cabinet actually decided. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mohammad Zbeeb

Published Friday, July 13, 2012

The Change and Reform bloc is yet to comment on the 2012 budget proposal which was approved by the Council of Ministers in its last session. One exception was the statement by the bloc’s de facto leader, Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil.

He announced the good news about “the approval of a large number of projects [in the budget proposal] reserved for the Batroun district in the water, sanitation, roads, transportation, communications, agriculture, and energy sectors.”

The bloc summed up all its battles for “change” and “reform” insofar as the budget as bits of electoral “handouts” in support of its one and only candidate in Batroun.

The bloc, represented by 10 of the 30 ministers in the cabinet, has forgotten the essence of the paper it presented last January.

The paper included a progressive and courageous position on fundamental issues related to respecting the constitution and laws, the principle of inclusiveness in the state budget, the redistribution of the tax burden more equally among social segments, the provision of comprehensive health coverage, reforming public expenditure, and adjusting its objectives to provide for the needs of the economy and citizens.

The bloc forgot about the issues it had raised in the past, that demanded the accountability of those responsible for public financial crimes committed for political goals and personal interest in the past two decades.

Bassil put his stamp on the settlement between [Speaker] Nabih Berri, [Prime Minister] Najib Mikati, [Future Bloc leader] Fouad Siniora, [President] Michel Suleiman, and [Druze chieftain] Walid Jumblatt.

The terms of the settlement meant that everyone, especially Hezbollah and [head of Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)] Michel Aoun, will be in the same boat with the other culprits.

More clearly, it meant that everyone would be charged with the same crime, so that no one could claim to be pure, whether in the cabinet or the parliament. It also meant that no one in the regime could extort the others by accusing them of violating the constitution, forsaking the rights of the state and the citizens’ interests, manipulating state finances, or using tax money to create political, economic, and social realities that everyone criticizes.

The bloc placed itself inside the circle of direct responsibility for the outcomes of the 2012 budget proposal. It had chosen a headline for its message which calls for the accountability of previous governments concerning the crimes and woes committed while managing public funds and manipulating them to build deep-rooted centers of power.

Following the last cabinet session, Mikati summarised these outcomes. He declared publicly that the council, which includes Hezbollah and FPM ministers, decided the following:

First, “we must close this file because all expenditures were done in the framework of conducting matters of state,” Mikati said. He meant closing the case of public spending which has been wide open for years.

The prime minister spoke as if he was a judge who has issued a ruling that said that all that was spent was for conducting matters of state. To give these words a clearer meaning, Mikati means to close the file on the spending of almost $85 billion from 2005 to 2012, without any law authorizing these expenses.

It also means he wants to close the file on tampering with the state budget since 1979, confirmed by the Audit Bureau, Parliament, and the reports of the Finance Ministry. They all indicated the lack of accounting for grants and loans, serious violations of the information system, and the mismatch between the figures of the budget and the closing balance, the balance and operational accounts, and the latter with the accounts of the central bank.

Mikati then said something even more shocking. “We can send the budget proposal draft to the parliament before finishing the balance [of last year]. The budget does not conflict with the balance.”

“It has been the norm to send the budget without there being a balance from previous years. But at the same time, if we wanted a solution to public finances, there should be a balance. Thus, we could close this subject, which includes a lot of talk about certain expenditures, here and there,” he claimed.

Second, “I believe the government fulfilled its promise,” said Mikati. But his government violated the constitution which sets a clear deadline for presenting the budget proposal draft before November of the year preceding the budget year. It is now nine months late.

Mikati probably meant the promise-settlement that led to Siniora allowing the bill for exceptional funding to pass through the parliament. This settlement was meant to close the public finances file forever.

Therefore, the promise had nothing to do with citizens’ needs or the economy, nor with public order. Even if the budget proposal reaches parliament, it will not see the light of day before the end of 2012. Therefore, like the bill of the 2005 budget, it will be pointless, unless it is in the same vein as all constitutional violations since the 1990s.

Third, Mikati said, “I informed the cabinet that Lebanon’s share of the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) for the year 2012 has already been paid. I asked for the item to be removed from the budget proposal.”

“The ranks and salaries scale [which costs the treasury 2,200 billion Lebanese Lira (LL) ($1.5 billion)], the four-year finance plan for the Lebanese army [LL3,000 billion ($2 billion)], and the general hospitalization plan [LL2,000 billion ($1.3 billion)] will all be considered from outside the budget.”

“This is to identify sources of income needed for these expenditures, which will be sent in separate bills to the parliament. I promised that this will happen at the required pace,” he declared.

In plain words, it is no longer clear what the cabinet actually decided.

There are expenses of around LL5,000 billion ($3.3 billion) a year (probably even more) from outside the budget. There might be new taxes (or debt) to finance these expenses, also from outside the budget.

This means that the cabinet is repeating the same egregious violations as the previous governments. But the current government is committing a more serious violation.

There are now four actual budgets. One is very formal, known as the basic law draft. Another, from outside the basic law, deals with main expenditures. The third is called the law of exceptional financing approved by the parliament and the exceptional loans approved by the cabinet. There is also a fourth budget, without any constitutional or legal basis, called the twelve months rule.

Mohammad Zbeeb is the Economy editor at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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