CONGRESS on Monday sought to approve a measure that will give President Rodrigo R. Duterte special powers to address the national crisis triggered by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.
The Senate and the House of Representatives held a special session to tackle the proposed measure, which declares a state of national emergency and provides the President with additional powers such as redirecting funds from the national budget into efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak.
As of Monday, the Philippines had 462 coronavirus infections, while deaths stood at 33.
“The goal is to pass it (Monday),” Senator Pia S. Cayetano said in a live video streamed in her official Facebook page on Monday afternoon. Ms. Cayetano co-authored Senate Bill No. 1413, or the proposed “Heal as One Act” with Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III.
The House committee of the whole, presided by Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez, approved House Bill No. 6616 or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.”
As of 5 p.m., the measure was still being tackled by the House plenary, where majority participated via a videoconferencing app. The Senate has yet to begin its plenary session.
As it is certified by Malacañang as “urgent,” the bill can be approved on second and third reading on the same day.
Amid criticisms of the Palace’s request for emergency powers, Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea said they amended the proposed bill “by narrowing it down and subjecting it to safeguards.”
“Even as originally worded, the intent of the proposal was simply to grant to government a standby power. It is a power which we do not consider necessary 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 but we only desire for such a power to be legislated because the virus we are up against is so unpredictable and can spread rapidly in a community,” Mr. Medialdea told an almost-empty House of Representatives as majority were at home in compliance with the Luzon-wide lockdown.
Mr. Medialdea was referring to a provision of Malacañang’s draft bill that would give the President the power to temporarily take over privately owned businesses such as hotels, telcos and transportation firms.
The Senate decided to ditch this provision, although SB 1413 retained the provision authorizing Mr. Duterte to direct the operation of privately owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, including other establishments to house health workers and serve as quarantine areas.
It noted that the management and operation of such facilities will be retained by the owners and may only be taken over by the government if the enterprise “unjustifiably refused” to comply or “signified they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises.”
Twelve senators met with Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III and Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra to discuss proposed amendments on Monday morning.
“We already convened as a body. We already had our caucus on the amendments that we intend to make on the Senate Bill… I am in the process of compiling all these reports,” Ms. Cayetano said.
Under SB 1413, the President will be authorized to “freely” make adjustments in the 2019 and 2020 budget, regulate traffic and public utilities and undertake procurement of personal protective equipment and testing kits, among others.
The proposed bill also authorizes the President to realign or reallocate as much as P275 billion in national budget and off-budget outlays to the government’s emergency subsidy program to provide relief to some 18 million Filipino households most affected by the pandemic and for the treatment of infected persons.
The President will also be given the authority to adjust deadlines and timelines for the filing of any document. He will also be able to adopt measures to protect consumers from price manipulation, profiteering and prevent hoarding, ensure availability of credit, and liberalize incentives for manufacturers and importers of critical equipment.
Mr. Medialdea assured the House that the powers the Executive branch requested are subject to their own “expiry date.”
“Our legislators would note that the powers we have requested today have their own expiry date as they would last only as long as the COVID-19 crisis would last and Congress itself would be able to closely monitor the actions of the Executive through the oversight committee to be created by the proposed law,” he said.
For Leonardo A. Lanzona, Jr., an economics professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, the government does not need emergency powers to incentivize companies to help in the efforts to contain the outbreak.
“For example, the Finance Secretary can just call all the CEOs to a conference and persuade them to work for the good of society. In the last few days, the private sector has been quite cooperative with the government and has been offering support to people in the form of food, alcohol and other necessities,” Mr. Lanzona said in an e-mailed response.
With the lockdown in place that is expected to last until April 12, he said the government should focus on intensifying testing, monitoring, and tracing of virus-infected people while boosting support to health workers on the front line and are vastly exposed to the disease.
Based on the experience of China, South Korea, and Singapore, with the quarantine in place, the government has to intensify the testing, monitoring, and tracing of virus-infected people, apart from assisting the medical personnel who are at the forefront of stomping this disease
“Without these procedures, the lockdown is not going to contain the disease and cause even greater economic losses. For this, the government will only need to align the budget to the demands of the health sector. The emergency powers being asked are just legal measures that have nothing to do with the health issue, Mr. Lanzona added. — Charmaine A. Tadalan and Genshen L. Espedido with Beatrice M. Laforga