Both Houses of Congress will hold a special session on Monday, March 23, to pass a bill granting President Rodrigo Duterte’s request for emergency funds, estimated at P200 billion, for the government’s response against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis.
As of Saturday afternoon, the Philippines has recorded 307 positive COVID-19 cases, including 19 deaths and 13 recoveries.
“Projection is around P200 billion for two months,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III said, noting that this would come in the form of food and cash for 16.5 million affected families nationwide.
Sotto clarified that the bill was not seeking “emergency powers” for the President.
The session would be held at 10 a.m. on March 23, Sotto told reporters in a message as senators, congressmen, and Executive branch officials were meeting in Malacanang.
National leaders were also discussing how much would be needed to directly help those hardest-hit by the enhanced community quarantine.
While a specific amount would not be indicated on the bill, the funding would generally come from available funds from government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), said Sotto.
Asked if the leaders were anticipating that the community quarantine measures would be extended until May, he said, “Not really but better to be prepared.”
Sotto said he would send other lawmakers a copy of the proposed measure later in the day.
Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, who was at the meeting of Malacañang and Congress officials Saturday, said in a statement that both chambers of Congress will convene at 10 a.m.
“Both Houses of Congress, through the Senate President and through the House Speaker, have expressed their readiness and have committed to work fast in order to pass the necessary measures immediately given the urgency of the matter,” Go said in a statement.
According to Go, a proposed bill from Malacañang, which “seeks to grant authority to the President to do what may be deemed necessary to fund measures to address and respond to the COVID-19 health emergency, including recovery and rehabilitation”, among others, will be sent to Congress “immediately.”
“More importantly, it will give flexibility for needed realignments in the budget of concerned agencies so that they can prioritize the provision of immediate healthcare needs, as well as food and cash assistance to affected Filipinos, particularly those belonging to vulnerable sectors,” Go said.
Aside from Go, among those who also attended the meeting were Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Senator Pia Cayetano, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.
Go agreed that giving the president the authority President to realign funds would “further empower and give the government the flexibility” it needs to address the COVID-19 threats.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, meanwhile, was confident that the proposed legislation would not affect the fiscal position of the country.
“We are not reducing the amount of spending. We will source the funds from non-budgetary sources,” he said in a Facebook live video aired by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano after the meeting.
“This will not impact taxes, so we want to preserve the Build, Build, Build program and all the economic programs of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte to reduce poverty in the country,” he added.
Congress had postponed its plan to hold a special session over the weekend after announcing that the legislative branch will gather to discuss Duterte’s request.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Duterte sought a P1.6-billion supplemental budget to support the country’s efforts against COVID-19.
This includes buying face masks, medicines and other medical equipment for frontline workers battling the disease.
“Kasi seryosong seryoso si Presidente, kailangang sirain na natin ang virus na ito (The President is really serious, we need to destroy this virus),” Panelo said.
The Philippines is under a state of calamity as the government taps into emergency funds to procure food and medical equipment for frontliners.
Luzon was placed under an enhanced community quarantine to curb the spread of the virus./Stacy Ang