Congress declares national emergency, grants special powers to Duterte

AS REQUESTED, both chambers of Congress have approved similar measures declaring a state of national emergency arising from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and granting President Rodrigo Duterte special powers for two to three months to respond to this emergency.

The House of Representatives then adopted the Senate version, thus eliminating the need to convene a bicameral conference committee and ensuring that the measure is submitted directly to the President for approval and enactment into law.

Voting 284-9 with zero abstention, the House approved on third and final reading House Bill No. 6616 (We Heal as One Act) at around midnight of Monday, March 23.

About an hour later, the Senate approved Senate Bill No. 1418 (Bayanihan to Heal as One Act) with 20 in favor, according to the Senate website. This includes the 12 official votes from those physically present and eight from those who would have voted yes had they been present, according to Senator Francis Pangilinan.

A couple of hours more later, or at past 3 a.m. Tuesday, March 24, members of the House approved Majority Leader Martin Romualdez’s motion to adopt SB1418 as amendment to HB6616.

The Senate version granted the President, among others, control over funds of at least P275 billion under the 2020 General Appropriations Act and legal authority to “direct the operation” of certain privately owned facilities as well as deal with “wayward” local government officials.

The President is given the legal authority to reprogram, reallocate and realign any unutilized or unreleased funds as well as savings and investments held by any national government agency, including government-owned and -controlled corporations, to raise the estimated P200 billion needed for a monthly emergency subsidy of P5,000 to P8,000 for two months to 18 million low-income families.

These include the 4.4 million beneficiaries of the government’s conditional cash transfer program, whose current allowance will just be topped up to reach the P5,000 to P8,000 subsidy.

“This (subsidy) will provide for their food and other daily needs, and will increase the chances that they will stay home and keep themselves safe and other Filipinos safe,” Senator Pia Cayetano said in her sponsorship speech.

The measure also provides a Covid-19 special risk allowance for all public health workers, a P100,000 compensation for public and private healthcare workers who contract the new coronavirus while battling the pandemic, and a compensation of P1 million for the family of a healthcare worker who dies from the disease.

Cayetano assured that funds are available. Among the possible sources are revenues generated by recently implemented tax reforms, concessional financing of up to $2 billion (roughly P100 billion) from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, a grant of $3 million from ADB, and a loan of $100 million from the World Bank to fight Covid-19.

“We will work with other sources to finance the balance. The confidence that the financial sector places in our country signifies that they are confident in our ability to reenergize the economy and pay back what we borrow,” she said.

Additional powers

SB1418, which is authored primarily by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Cayetano, grants the President the power to adopt the following temporary emergency measures:

> Adopt and implement measures to prevent or suppress further transmission of the novel coronavirus through effective education, detection, protection and treatment;

> Expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by public and designated private institutions of patients under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUM) as well as compulsory and immediate isolation and treatment of patients, with the cost to be covered by Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth);

> Ensure that all local government units (LGUs) are acting in line with the rules, regulations and directives issued by the national government.

> When the public interest so requires, direct the operation of any privately owned hospitals and medical and health facilities as well as passenger vessels and other establishments to house health workers or serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations, or other temporary medical facilities, or transport frontline personnel. The owners of these facilities will retain management and operation of these facilities.

> Enforce measures to protect the people from hoarding profiteering, injurious speculations, manipulation of prices, product deceptions, and cartels, monopolies or other trade barriers that affect the supply of basic necessities and sanitation products.

> Ensure that donation acceptance and distribution of health products are not unnecessarily delayed.

> Undertake in the most expeditious manner the procurement of essential goods and protective equipment, lease of real property to house health workers or serve as quarantine centers or temporary medical facilities, establishment and construction of temporary medical facilities with utilities, telecommunications and other critical services.

> Engage the services of the Philippine Red Cross as the primary humanitarian agency that is auxiliary to the government in giving aid to the people subject to reimbursement.

> Engage temporary human resources for health to supplement the current health workforce or man the temporary medical facilities.

> Lower lending rates and reserve requirements to ensure availability of credit;

> Liberalize the grant of incentives for the manufacture or importation of critical or needed equipment or supplies.

> Require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for necessary materials and services.

> Regulate operation of both public and private transportation sector, whether by land, sea or air.

> Regulate traffic and clear roads of encroachments or obstacles.

> Authorize alternative working arrangements for executive department employees as well as in other branches of government and the private sector.

> Conserve and regulate the distribution and use of power, fuel, energy and water to ensure adequate supply.

> Direct the discontinuance of appropriated programs, projects or activities of any agency of the executive branch, including government-owned and -controlled corporations, “whether released or unreleased the allotments for which remain unobligated”.

Savings generated from the discontinuance of some activities will be used to augment funds to support operations directly related to the battle against the pandemic.

An oversight committee would ensure that realignment of funds is based on the availability of funds and the necessity of spending these.

Deputy House Speaker Luis Raymond “LRay" Villafuerte, in his own sponsorship speech at the House, assured that there would be no corruption in the disbursement of funds.

Special sessions

Both the Senate and the House separately convened special sessions at 10 a.m. Monday, March 23, in response to Proclamation No. 933, which Duterte issued on March 21 to ask Congress to grant him additional powers to deal with the pandemic.

At the House, nearly 300 members attended the special session. But only 20 were physically present while the rest, who were declared on official business, joined the deliberations through teleconferencing.

The House was convened as a committee of the whole and passed HB6616 via a voice vote to go into plenary, with the approved version of the bill empowering the President to “direct the operation” of, not take over, certain privately owned establishments.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, who appeared before the House, earlier described the authority to “take over” privately owned establishments as “standby power in the event the crisis reached when most critical institutions are nearing total shutdown.”

He acknowledged that this legal authority has been stirring controversy, but assured that the executive branch “has no intent to abuse the powers we are asking of you today.”

Interpellations were held for most of the day before the House suspended session for about four hours in the evening.

At the Senate, Sotto had to suspend session shortly after calling it to order at 10 a.m. Monday for lack of quorum. He said they needed to wait for two more colleagues and called for a caucus instead.

Under the rules, more than half of the Senate’s 24 members would constitute a quorum.

The senators returned to the session hall early afternoon, but had to suspend session again for lack of quorum. They resumed session at a little past 7 p.m. Monday.

Both chambers worked until past 3 a.m. Tuesday to ensure that the measure is passed.

Duterte earlier placed the country under a state of public health emergency and state of calamity to allow the government to tap funds to respond to the pandemic.

He has also declared an enhanced community quarantine in the entire Luzon until April 14, 2020, mandating over 53 million residents to stay at home in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the highly infectious pathogen that causes Covid-19.

Several local governments across the country have also imposed localized quarantine rules in their areas of jurisdiction.

As of Monday, March 23, the Department of Health said it has recorded 462 Covid-19 cases in the Philippines. Thirty-three patients had died while 18 have recovered.

Globally, the World Health Organization said the novel coronavirus has infected 332,930 people as of March 23, 2020. Of the number, 14,510 had died. (Marites Villamor-Ilano/SunStar Philippines)