Breaking! House of Representatives grants Duterte additional powers to address COVID-19

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With an overwhelming majority, the House of Representatives on Monday approved the measure granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The chamber approved during its “virtual” session and voting,  with 284 affirmative votes and nine against, special session House Bill 6616, or the proposed “Bayanihan to Heal As One” Act, which seeks to declare a national emergency amid the threat from COVID-19.

The House bill authorizes the President to exercise powers in dealing with the health situation “for a limited time and subject to restrictions.”

Once enacted into law, the measure will take come into full effect but for only three months, unless extended by Congress.

Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte  sponsored the measure in the plenary.

The bill cited that the powers granted to Duterte may likewise be withdrawn sooner through a concurrent resolution of Congress or ended by presidential proclamation.

Duterte certified the bill as urgent allowing the House to approve it on second and third reading on the same day.

Duterte signed Proclamation No. 993 calling for the special session of the Senate and the House of Representatives to approve measures to address COVID-19.

Lawmakers who were not able to physically join the session due to social distancing measures and travel restrictions were allowed to cast their votes virtually through electronic means.

According to the bill, while the government has ramped up its efforts against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to increase, and there is now an urgent need to minimize its transmission, mobilize assistance to affected individuals and provide healthcare and treatment to patients.

“By reason thereof, and in order to optimize the efforts of the President to carry out the tasks needed to implement the aforementioned policy, it is imperative to grant him authority subject to such limitations,” the bill  read.

The original version of the bill, however, specifically stated that Duterte would be given emergency powers, although it was removed when the House amended the entire bill by substitution.

One of the additional powers granted the President was the authority to “direct the operation of privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, hotels, and other similar establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations, or other temporary medical facilities.”

It also allows the President to direct the operation of public transportation systems to carry health, emergency and frontline personnel and other persons.

The said provision, however, assures that the management and operation of these enterprises “shall be retained by the owners of the public service or enterprise, who shall render a full accounting to the President or his duly authorized representative of the operations of the utility or business as basis for appropriate compensation.”

Notably missing in this provision is the authority given to Duterte to “temporarily take over privately-owned public utilities and businesses” which stirred controversy on the day before the special session.

However, Duterte can still take over private enterprises relevant to COVID-19 response if they unjustifiably refuse or are incapable of operating.

The bill also grants Duterte to undertake, as needed, the speedy procurement of goods including personal protective equipment, medicine, and other medical supplies, as well as the lease of property or venue to house health workers and serve as quarantine centers.

The measure also grants Duterte the authority to regulate traffic and limit the operation of land, sea, air and rail transportation, both public and private.

The House bill also allows the President to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation” in the 2020 national budget “for whatever purpose the President may deem necessary” to combat the spread of COVID-19, and cancel appropriated programs, projects, and activities to generate savings.

There  are P275 billion off-budget funds that can be used to address COVID-19 on top of the funds from the 2020 General Appropriations Act that can also be used.

Of the P275 billion budget, P200 billion will be set aside for an emergency subsidy program for around 18 million affected families for two months. The remaining P75 billion will be used for health expenditures and other services.

Duterte earlier placed the  entire Luzon under an enhanced community quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The latest report of the Department  of Health (DOH)  cited on  Monday afternoon  that there were 462 positive cases of COVID-19 in the country, with 33 deaths and 18 recoveries./Stacy Ang

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