By Macon Araneta

Congress approved on late night on March 23 a Palace-backed measure declaring a national emergency that will allow President Rodrigo Duterte to re-align funds under this year’s national budget to address the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Voting 284 to 9 with no abstentions on third and final reading in a special session, the House of Representatives led by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano convened into the committee of the whole to approve House Bill 6616, otherwise known as “Bayanihan Act of 2020.”

In observing social distancing protocols, only 20 congressmen were allowed to physically attend the session while about 298 House members participated in the plenary deliberations through tele-conferencing.

The Senate’s special session meant to bolster the country’s fight against COVID-19 was stalled for about two hours on Monday due to a lack of quorum, as six senators from both administration and opposition were either self-quarantined or in the provinces and thus unable to make the session.

“The absence of the minority bloc in the special session is not a boycott,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon stressed in a text message.

Sotto said Senate Bill 1413 known as “We Heal As One Act,” which placed the country under “national emergency” intends to give PHP5,000 to PHP8,000 to 18.5 million families indigent families in Luzon.

The amount of financial assistance to the families, Sotto said, depends on the minimum wage in the region.  

The Senate version does not indicate the total amount needed to provide for the indigent families but Sotto said it might not go beyond PHP200 billion. He said target comprises 18.5M families.

Sotto and Sen. Pia Cayetano, initiated the filing of the bill which seeks to declare the existence of a national emergency arising from COVID-19.

Sotto III on Monday said there was no mention of emergency powers in the Senate version of the Bill.

“The copy they’re talking about was a draft; it was drafted by some lawyers,” he said.

It authorizes the President “for a limited period and subject to restrictions, to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out the declared national policy.”

Such powers include the authority to “direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, including establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations, or other temporary medical facilities and public transportation to ferry health, emergency and frontline personnel and other persons.”

“If the foregoing enterprises unjustifiably refuse or signified that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises for the purpose stated herein, the President may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution,” the bill said.

The President would also be granted under the bill to “regulate and limit the operation of all sectors of transportation through land, sea or air, whether private or public.”

The 10 other authors of the bill are Senate Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Christopher “Bong” Go, Richard Gordon,  Panfilo Lacson,  Lito Lapid,  Manny Pacquiao, Grace Poe, Ramon “Bong’ Revilla Jr. and Francis  Tolentino.

Although Sen. Cynthia Villar was not present, she sent a letter expressing her intention to co-author the bill. Sotto said Villar would be counted as co-author of the bill

All opposition senators— Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros and Leila de Lima (who has been detained at Camp Crame over drug charges) were absent during the Senate special session.

Cayetano, on the other hand, said their version might include special powers for Duterte “as a last resort.”

“That’s what special power means for example: the power to direct businesses if they don’t want to obey the government,” he said.

“In the draft, it’s not ‘take over’ but as last resort, if they don’t cooperate, that’s when government will take over because that’s in the Constitution. But we changed that, including the wording, to simply ‘direct’ businesses,” Cayetano added.

HB6616 also allows the President to “direct the operation of “private hospitals, health facilities, hotels and other similar establishments to House health workers, serve as quarantine areas or quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations or other temporary medical facilities.”

The Bill also proposes to allow the President to direct the operation of public transportation systems to carry health, emergency and frontline personnel and other persons.

Once signed into law, the measure would give Duterte “for a limited period and subject to restrictions” powers that would help deal with the crisis, including the possible re-alignment of funding in the 2020 budget and the allocation of funds and investments of government agencies for the country’s COVID-19 response.

Justice Sec. Menardo Guevarra said the temporary take-over powers provision is allowed under Article XII, Section 17 of the Constitution.

Section 17 provides that “In times of national emergency, when the public interest so requires, the state may, during the emergency and under reasonable terms prescribed by it, temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest.”

But Executive Sec. Salvador Medialdea said the Chief Executive does not consider it necessary for such a power “to be exercised at all times because the establishments that are needed to deal with this crisis have, to their credit, been mostly cooperating with government.”

“The power to take over is intended merely as a stand-by power in the event the crisis reaches its worse, when our most critical institutions are nearing a total shutdown, and government is left with no choice but to take over these establishments,” he said.

Medialdea said the Duterte administration has the track record of not abusing emergency powers as evidenced by the declaration of martial law in Mindanao when the bandit Maute Group attempted to take over Marawi City.

House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said, “Specifically, the Bill seeks to empower the President to order the purchase of goods like testing kits, to lease properties and to construct temporary medical facilities without going through the rules on procurement, as well as require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services in connection with the fight against COVID-19.”

Deputy Speaker for Finance and Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte said, “A major casualty of this virus is our resurgent economy, as the pandemic threatens to stop dead on its tracks the growth momentum that our country has been experiencing.”

“But other than the infected persons themselves and more than the domestic economy, the biggest casualty from the pandemic are, collectively, the poor and low-income Filipinos who have lost their jobs or sources of livelihood as a result of the lockdown in Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon, as well as in other communities elsewhere where local government units (LGUs) have likewise restricted personal movement in the hope of containing COVID-19,” he said.

Villafuerte said the lockdowns in Luzon and elsewhere have slowed the national and local economies almost to a standstill, dislocating about 18 million families who live by the no-work, no-pay system.

Villafuerte said PHP200 billion will be allotted for the emergency program for the 18 million households, while the balance of PHP75 billion will go to health-related initiatives and other services.

“Thus, we have PHP275 billion that can be made available quickly for the Bayanihan Heal as One Act,” said Villafuerte.

“This Bill will also allow the government to adequately equip and protect our countless health practitioners who are at the frontlines of our battle against COVID-19,” he said. “Their selflessness and bravery inspire us as we undertake this task.”

The DOH said over the weekend it was “accelerating its COVID-19 testing capacity” with the arrival of 120,500 test kits from countries like China, South Korea and Brunei in addition to the 3,300-plus kits that came earlier from South Korea and China and the identification of more sub-national laboratories capable of processing testing other than the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Alabang, Muntinlupa City.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said while she fully supports the allocation of a supplemental budget to boost the government’s efforts to immediately contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, she rejected the granting of emergency powers to the President, saying these were unnecessary.

She said, the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act or Republic Act No. 11332, provides comprehensive mechanisms during epidemics or other health emergencies.

Likewise, the Government Procurement Reform Act (RA 9184) at present authorizes government agencies to engage in speedier, alternative methods of procurement of resources – such as negotiated procurement – during calamities.