(Updated at 1:30 a.m.)
Congress approved late Monday night a Palace-backed measure declaring a national emergency that will enable President Rodrigo Duterte to realign 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.”
At past 1 a.m. Tuesday, the Senate then voted 12-0 to approve its version of the bill, following deliberations that lasted well past midnight on proposals to modify the measure that would give more compensation to frontline health workers battling the pandemic.
House sources told Manila Standard senators were coordinating with their congressional counterparts to avoid convening a bicameral conference committee, which would take more time to hammer out a bill for the President’s signature.
This even after some lawmakers had vowed they would pass the measure “by hook or by crook” in just one session.
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 realignment of funding in the 2020 budget and the allocation of funds and investments of government agencies for the country's COVID-19 response.
The House started its session at 10 a.m. and held a marathon session to finish its deliberation on the measure, according to Rep. Eric Yap, chairman of the House appropriations committee.
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.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, and Social Welfare Rolando Bautista also attended the session as resource persons.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday said there was no mention of emergency powers in the Senate verison of the bill.
“The copy they're talking about was a draft; it was drafted by some lawyers," he sald.
Under the Senate version filed by Sotto on Monday, the executive branch will be only be allowed to use additional funds to provide aid for some 18 million indigent families, the Senate president said.
He said each indigent family is expected to receive about P8,000 monthly for two months.
"There will be oversight. Congress will have oversight. They should not be worried because there are safeguards,” Sotto added.
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.
Also on Monday, the Department of Justice on Monday justified the inclusion of a “take-over provision” in the proposed emergency powers being sought by Malacanang to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Justice Secretary 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.”
Guevarra said his role was to ensure that provisions of the emergency powers bill would stand on solid constitutional ground.
“It is prudent to have it in the bill now rather be caught unprepared should things suddenly deteriorate, God forbid,” he added.
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 teleconferencing.
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.
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea addressed fears over the power to take over private utilities.
“Even as originally worded, the intent of the proposal was to simply grant the government a standby power,” Medialdea said.
But Medialdea said the 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.
In a speech at the start of the session, 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.
In addition, he said that the emergency powers will not redound to the benefit of Duterte but rather to the Filipino people as these will ensure the speedy delivery of goods and services needed to contain the virus.
The executive secretary also said that Congress can closely monitor the actions of the executive branch through an oversight committee to be created under the proposed law.
“We only desire such a power to be legislated because the virus we are up against is so unpredictable and can spread rapidly in a community. The power to take over is intended merely as a standby power in the event the crisis reaches its worst," he added.
According to the draft Senate bill, one of the emergency powers to be granted Duterte is to effect the speedy procurement of goods and personal protective equipment, medicine, and other medical supplies, as needed.
Medialdea said that in asking Congress to grant these powers to Duterte, Malacañang only wants to hasten the delivery of services to those affected by COVID-19.
"We want to halt its spread and to bring relief to the rest of our countrymen who are now constrained to stay in their homes and give up for a time their ability to earn a daily living," he added.
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano promised “unprecedented cooperation” between the executive and legislative branches amid the health crisis.
"Today you will see congressmen, governors, and mayors working hand in hand. This is our part, we'll do our part, we will help the mayors, we will help the LGUs deliver these resources into the hands of each and every household," Cayetano said in his speech at the opening of the special session of the House of Representatives.
Cayetano said Congress would need to work fast to approve measures to address the national health emergency.
"Are we willing to let 30 million Filipinos get infected? The answer is no. That is why we are here today to pass this legislation. Why? There is a simple message from government, stay home, save lives," Cayetano said.
In line with social distancing protocols, only 20 congressmen attended Monday’s session, with other House members joining in through videoconferencing.
President Rodrigo Duterte called for the special session of the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass necessary legislation needed to address the COVID-19 threat.
Romualdez said the emergency powers were needed not only to control the spread of COVID-19 but to immediately mobilize resources to provide the basic necessities to families and individuals”•especially the poor “• affected by the Luzon-wide lockdown.
"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," Romualdez said.
Deputy Speaker for Finance and Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte said the bill would enable Duterte to realign or reallocate as much as P275 billion in 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 coronavirus pandemic and for the treatment of persons infected with COVID-19.
“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,” said Villafuerte in his sponsorship speech during Monday’s special session of the House of Representatives.
“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, thereby dislocating an estimated 18 million Filipino families who live by the no-work, no-pay system.
“They have no other means of earning a living or fending for themselves for the duration of the community quarantine,” he said.
Villafuerte said P200 billion will be allotted for the emergency program for the 18 million households, while the balance of P75 billion will go to health-related initiatives and other services.
“Thus we have P275 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.”
Villafuerte, who attended last Saturday’s meeting at the Palace of congressional leaders and Cabinet members on the special session, said the government would also need to allot funds to possibly convert public buildings into temporary hospitals or put up tents as temporary annexes to health facilities treating COVID-19 cases, as the acceleration of the DOH’s testing capacity will mean the identification of a far bigger number of patients positive for the virus who will then require medical treatment.
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 subnational laboratories capable of processing testing other than the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Alabang, Muntinlupa City.
Senator 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 our existing laws already grant government the powers and other necessary tools needed to mount an effective response against COVID-19.
Notably, 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.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the absence of minority senators in Monday’s session was not a boycott.
"We are on a 14-day self-quarantine as we were exposed on March 11 to Senator Migz (Juan Miguel) Zubiri, who was tested positive," said Drilon.
Moreover, Drilon said that due to his age and a pace-maker to regulate hid heartbeat, he is a high-risk person who must take extra precautions.
Drilon said he had requested for a session through teleconferencing, but Sotto said the Senate had no facility to do this.
Drilon urged the media not to attribute any meaning to their absence from the special session.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said he is currently on the 13th day of self-quarantine after being exposed to a COVID-19-positive person.
Hontiveros, another member or the minority bloc, said she failed to attend the special session as she has been strictly following health protocols set by the DOH.
"I am currently still under self-quarantine set to end by March 25,” she said.
Senators Aquilino Pimentel III and Nancy Binay, both belonging to the majority bloc, said they are still on self-quarantine "for the good of others."
"Much as I wanted to participate in today's special session, I am still on an extended quarantine period given the fact that I have been exposed twice to persons who have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus," Binay said.