Voting 12-0, the Senate on Monday night approved Senate Bill1418 or the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” which would grant President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak and place the whole country under a state of national emergency due to the crisis.
Duterte is expected to sign the Bill this (Tuesday) evening to give him emergency powers.
The bill was authored by Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III and Senator Pia Cayetano.
Meanwhile, Sotto stressed they never talked about the grant of emergency powers to the President during a meeting in Malacanang before the conduct of a special session by Congress that would give the Chief Executive powers to address the COVID-19 crisis.
“In view of the continuing rise of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the serious threat to the health, safety, security, and lives of our countrymen, the long-term adverse effects on their means of livelihood, and the severe disruption of economic activities, a state of national emergency is hereby declared over the entire country,” read the bill.
“We never talked about emergency powers. In fact during the meeting, I was telling them not to use emergency powers becauae fhe people might not like it,” said Sotto.
“Because there is an emergency situation, we are giving the President authority… some financial powers because what we want to address is financial since our people especially those in the informal sector have no jobs now,” said Sotto who noted they took the initiative to call for a a special session to address the needs of at least 18 million Filipino families affected by the Luzon lockdown.
Strongly reacting to the House members looking for emergency powers, Sotto said he asked them, “Sino naman nagsabi sa kanilang emergency powers ang ipinapasa namin?”
“On day 1, even in the meeting pa lang, sinabi ko na hindi pwedeng emergency powers ang pinag-uusapan dito,” also related Sotto.
Since there is is an emergency situation, he said the President should be given authority to handle the situation financially and the necessary powers to handle it.
“That was what we said. If you said emergency powers, we are talking about a different thing here,” said Sotto as he guaranteed enough safeguards to thwart any possible abuse.
“It even has a restriction on time. It’s within the 2-month period and if the COVID-19 problem would be prolonged, we can qpprove it to three months,” said the Senate leader.
For a start, Sotto said the financiat assistance for at least 18 million indigents would be for two months first. But there would be new talks in case of an extension.
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Senate finance committee chairperson, said the bill authorizes the President to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign” any appropriation in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) “as may be necessary and beneficial to fund measures that will respond to the COVID-19 emergency, including social amelioration for affected communities and the recovery and rehabilitation.”
The President will also have authority to “allocate cash, funds, and investments held by any government-owned or controlled corporation (GOCC) or any national government agency as necessary to address the COVID-19 crisis,” Cayetano noted.
“Under the proposal, any unobligated amount, whether released or unreleased in the budget, shall be considered to have their purpose abandoned or fulfilled, as of the date of the declaration of the State of Emergency,” he added.
The measure also provides for an emergency subsidy for 18 million low-income households across the country amounting to P5,000 to P8,000 each for two months.
Among other powers given to the President is the authority to direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, including passenger vessels, as well as other establishments.
These establishments will be for the use of housing health workers and will also serve as quarantine facilities as well as medical relief and aid distribution locations.
On top of that, the President will also have the authority to direct the operation of public transportation to ferry health, emergency, and frontline personnel.
The senators also sought to give the chief executive authority to “expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by public and designated private institutions of PUIs (persons under investigation) and PUMs (persons under monitoring) and compulsory and immediate isolation and treatment of patients.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said audit regulations on government agencies and the anti-graft law will remain enforced amid the declaration of the existence of a national emergency and the grant of additional powers by Congress to the President to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Drilon, however, made it clear that the move by Congress does not in any way waive audit rules and regulations and the anti graft law.
He hopes the measure will “give enough leeway to the executive branch to do their job” within three months.
He amended the Malacanang bill and put a stop on the desired “perpetual exercise of the emergency powers” by limiting the same to three months, unless Congress extends the same.
Under the proposed measure, the President is given the authority to declare savings within the executive branch in the 2020 General Appropriations Act and use them to augment items that could address the effects of the coronavirus in the country.
Drilon said he proposed amendments to make the provisions of the measure compliant to the Supreme Court rulings on Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
He said the power to realign should be in accordance with the regulations issued by the Supreme Court in the PDAF and DAP cases.
“The Supreme Court said realignment can be done within the executive branch. It does not include the legislative, judiciary, constitutional commissions, and there should be savings,” Drilon explained.
“We also made sure that the funds will be used to fund programs, projects and activities that is directly related to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic” he added.
The minority leader also proposed to prioritize several items in the budget which the Senate adopted. These include the following:
- Under the Department of Health – operational budgets of government hospitals, primarily those indentified for treatment of COVID-19; prevention and control of other infesctious diseases; emergency preparedness and response; quick response fund;
- Under the University of the Philippines – the operational budget of the Philippine General Hospital;
- The National Disaster Risk Reduction fund or calamity fund;
- Programs of the Department of Labor and Employment, such as but not limited to Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers and COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program;
- Under the Department of Agriculture – Rice Farmers Financial Assistance Program;
- Under the Department of Education – School-Based Feeding Program;
- Under various Department of Social Welfare and Development programs, such as but not limited to Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations, distribution of food and non-food items, livelihood assistance grants, and supplemental feeding program for day-care children;
- Under allocations to local government units;
- Quick Response Funds.
The minority leader also expressed full support to the grant of P8,000 to Filipino poor households for two months, urging the executive to roll out the program at the soonest time possible to help them cope with the effects of COVID-19.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said he voted “Yes” but with serious reservations on the grant of special powers to the President.
He strongly criticized the original draft bill as an attempt to get “unli” emergency powers and “unli” spending powers to the President.
While it limited the exercise of these powers to two months, Pangilinan, however, said it also also gives the President the power to extend it to however long he wants, and was quiet on how much and how it would be spent.
“The Senate limited the powers to 90 days and any extension will require Congressional approval,” he said.
He related that his colleagues in the Senate, and “with our submitted written amendments, took away those dangerous provisions, particularly the government’s prerogative to take over companies (except to direct the operation of health facilities and passenger vessels) while the COVID-19 crisis rages.”
He said “the Senate was also able to provide for what the people need now and what we, echoing the clamor of the people and various experts, have been calling for: mass testing, support to front-liners, and cash transfers to the vulnerable.”
In the Senate version, he said they were able to exert their influence on the Executive on how the crisis must be addressed — not in the haphazard, confusing, and damaging way that it has so far faced this life-and-death situation.
He noted the Senate version, now fully adopted by the House of Representatives, put some order, transparency, and accountability in the chaos, as it (1) prioritizes the distribution of medical supplies and the augmentation of the budget; (2) limits the President’s power to realign funds to “Savings” within the Executive branch; (3) grants grace periods for loans and rental payments; (4) includes an expanded and more comprehensive 4Ps; (5) provides P5,000 up to P8,000 emergency subsidy a month, for a period of two months, to 18 million low-income families; (6) exempts from import taxes the importation of equipment and supplies needed for COVID-19 response; (7) grants P100,000 or P1,000,000 to public and private health workers who may contract or die from COVID-19; (8) requires the President to report to Congress weekly all acts performed pursuant to the Act, including the amount and corresponding utilization of funds used, augmented, reprogrammed, reallocated, and realigned; (9) removes from the President the delegation of penal powers and specifies punishable acts under the law; (10) clarifies that the Constitution prevails over any provision of the law; and (11) makes the effectivity of the law three months unless extended by Congress.
“These sweeping revisions would not have been possible without the inspiring effort of concerned Filipinos who voiced their opposition to the original version via the email and social media accounts of their legislators,” he said.
“And as we said in our phone-in verbal explanation of vote, our ‘Yes’ vote comes with both a warning and an admonition,” he said.
“It is a warning and an admonition to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) that our people deserve better from them. And that the incoherent and often confusing, conflicting, and haphazard policy pronouncements in the past two weeks ought to be the last coming from IATF,” he also said.
In her “NO” vote, Senator Risa Hontiveros noted this because it grants the President unchecked powers that are open to abuse and corruption.
“It also grants the President a virtual blank check with no clear plan nor strategy to defeat COVID-19. Paano natin masisigurado na mapupunta ang pondo sa taumbayan?” she said.
Hontiveros said she is very alarmed by the potential for abuse and lack of accountability in giving the President near-absolute control over public funds in national government agencies and even government-owned and -controlled corporations (GOCCs).
She warned the President’s new powers would authorize him to now stop altogether important government projects and divert their funding to other uses, with little check and balances in place.
“We cannot and should not blindly trust the use of these important funds to a government, which during this health crisis, has chosen to spend P14 billion on tourism projects, but has been unable to immediately and sufficiently deliver PPEs to our doctors, health workers, law enforcement agents and other frontliners,” she said.
Furthermore, she believes the Executive Branch does not need special powers for it to act urgently and decisively in meeting the immediate needs of the people amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“While I am grateful that my amendment for the provision of cash transfers to poor Filipino families was included in the bill, even this provision does not require the grant of new powers. Our arsenal of readily-available laws and policies, notably the Government Procurement Reform Act (RA 9184), the Price Act (RA 7582) and the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act (RA 11332), has not been fully utilized in the fight versus COVID-19,” she said.
She said these laws, if partnered with a supplemental budget, already authorize the government to purchase ample personal protective equipment (PPEs), medical supplies, relief packages and other needed items, secure that prices of basic goods will remain affordable, and impose preventive community-wide measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, among others./Stacy Ang