(UPDATED AT 11:30 PM)
President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday assured the nation of the government’s protection against the COVID-19 coronavirus disease as he thanked Congress for passing the emergency bill that grants him powers to fight the pandemic.
In a short, televised address at 10 p.m., the President stopped short of saying he had already signed the bill into law but thanked Senate President Vicente Sotto III and lawmakers for passing the measure and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano for his “decisive leadership” in pushing the administration proposal.
“To the members of both houses of Congress who sponsored and voted for this measure, I express my sincerest gratitude to all of you for granting our most urgent requests. Finally, the Executive Department can move, decide and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people during this health crisis,” Duterte said.
“I now call on every Filipino to participate in this war by following the guidelines. Nothing is more important that your cooperation,” the President said.
He said Filipinos could count on the government to work “hand in hand to safeguard your health, safety and well-being in the face of the threat of COVID-19.”
“Let me reiterate our sincerest gratitude to all frontliners,” the President said, adding he was saddened about news that doctors, nurses and other health workers have died fighting the disease.
He assures the distribution of food and financial assistance for Filipinos during the crisis, especially to the vulnerable and those in the margins.
The President repeated his plea for Filipinos to stay at home during the quarantine. “Nothing is more important than your safety. The outcome of this war depends largely on you as well,” he said.
Duterte also pleaded with fellow public servants to “set aside our differences” in facing a common enemy in COVID-19. “Nothing is more formidable and resilient than the Filipino spirit. Matindi ang kalaban, but we will not surrender.”
The President was expected to sign into law the "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act" granting him extra powers to address the COVID-19 crisis, despite Sotto's insistence that these did not amount to emergency powers.
Sotto said Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte's erstwhile aide, had the President sign the Palace-backed measure at the Presidential Security Group compound in Manila at around 8 p.m.
“Today. Sen. Bong Go was telling me last night (Monday) kung pwedeng maabutan nga niya si Presidente, papipirmahan niya na eh (if he could catch the President to have him sign it),” Sotto told Senate reporters earlier in an interview.
Early Tuesday, the Senate voted 20-1 to approve Senate Bill No. 1418, which the House of Representatives adopted later in the day after congressmen approved Majority Leader Martin Romualdez’s motion to adopt it as an amendment to House Bill 6616 (We Heal as One Act) .
The bill also put the entire country under a state of national emergency.
“We never talked about emergency powers. In fact, during the meeting [in the Palace], I was telling them not to use emergency powers because the people might not like it,” Sotto said.
“Because there is an emergency situation, we are giving the President [the] authority… some financial powers because what we want to address is financial, since our people, especially those in the informal sector, have no jobs now,” Sotto said.
“That was what we said. If you said emergency powers, we are talking about a different thing here,” Sotto said, adding that safeguards were in place to thwart possible abuse.
“It even has a restriction on time. It’s within the two months and if the COVID-19 problem would be prolonged, we can approve it to three months,” he said.
The bill would provide financial assistance to 18 million low-income households that are reeling from the Luzon-wide lockdown that have kept people away from their jobs. An extension could be discussed, if need be, Sotto added.
READ: Duterte puts entire Luzon on lockdown
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said the House version of the bill authorizes the President to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign” any appropriation in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) “as may be
necessary and beneficial to fund measures that will respond to the COVID-19 emergency, including social amelioration for affected communities and the recovery and rehabilitation.”
The President will also have the authority to “allocate cash, funds, and investments held by any government-owned or controlled corporation (GOCC) or any national government agency as necessary to address the COVID-19 crisis,” Cayetano said.
“Under the proposal, any unobligated amount, whether released or unreleased in the budget, shall be considered to have their purpose abandoned or fulfilled, as of the date of the declaration of the State of Emergency,” he added.
The measure also provides for an emergency subsidy for 18 million low-income households across the country amounting to P5,000 to P8,000 each for two months.
Among other powers given to the President is the authority to direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, including passenger vessels, as well as other establishments to house health workers, and to serve as quarantine facilities and distribution centers for medical relief and aid.
The President will also have the authority to direct the operation of public transportation to ferry health, emergency, and frontline personnel.
The senators also sought to give the Chief Executive authority to “expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by public and designated private institutions of PUIs (patients under investigation) and PUMs (persons under monitoring) and compulsory and immediate isolation and treatment of patients.”
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said audit regulations on government agencies and the anti-graft law will remain in force despite the grant of additional powers to the President.
He said he hoped the bill would “give enough leeway” to the executive branch to do their job within three months.
He rejected what he called a bid to obtain the “perpetual exercise of emergency powers” by limiting them to three months unless Congress extends it.
Drilon said he proposed amendments to make the provisions of the bill compliant with the Supreme Court rulings that barred the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
He said the power to realign funds should be in accordance with the regulations issued by the Supreme Court in the PDAF and DAP cases.
“We also made sure that the funds will be used to fund programs, projects, and activities that directly related to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic” he added.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said he voted ‘Yes’ but with serious reservations on the grant of special powers to the President.
He criticized the original draft bill as an attempt to get unlimited emergency powers and unlimited spending powers for the President.
While it limited the exercise of these powers to two months, Pangilinan said the bill also also gives the President the power to extend it to however long he wants, and was quiet on how much and how
funds would be spent.
“The Senate limited the powers to 90 days and any extension will require Congressional approval,” he said.
He noted Senate version, now fully adopted by the House of Representatives, put some order, transparency, and accountability by prioritizing the distribution of medical supplies and the augmentation of the budget; limiting the President’s power to realign funds to “savings” within the executive branch, granting grace periods for loans and rental payments; including an expanded and more comprehensive dole program; providing P5,000 to P8,000 emergency subsidy a month, for a period of two months, to 18 million low-income families; exempting from import taxes equipment and supplies needed for the COVID-19 response; grants P100,000 or P1 million to public and private health workers who may contract or die from COVID-19; requiring the President to report to Congress weekly all acts performed as a result of the law; removing from the President the delegation of penal powers and specifies punishable acts under the law; clarifying that the Constitution prevails over any provision of the law; and making the effectivity of the law three months unless extended by Congress.
“And as we said in our phone-in verbal explanation of vote, our ‘Yes’ vote comes with both a warning and an admonition.”
“It is a warning and an admonition to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) that our people deserve better from them. And that the incoherent and often confusing, conflicting, and haphazard policy
pronouncements in the past two weeks ought to be the last coming from IATF,” Pangilinan said.
Hontiveros said she voted no, because of the opportunity for abuse—and also because existing laws already grant the President the powers needed to deal with a pandemic.
House leaders said they were relieved that the bill passed at dawn Tuesday, setting the stage for the President’s signing of the bill soon.
“It’s been a long day, but it’s been worth it,” Cayetano said. “But we’re going to face many, many long days in the coming weeks, unless we find a way to work together as a nation to set aside politics, to take out this toxic environment that we had before COVID-19.”
The House approved its version of the measure under House Bill 6616 by a 284-9 vote.
Since the bill has been certified as urgent by the President, it was approved on second, and third and final reading on the same day without undergoing the normal three-day rule in between approvals.
Majority Leader Martin Romualdez said the bill would amply provide health care, including medical tests and treatments, to COVID-19 patients, persons under investigation, and persons under monitoring.
It also mandates the formulation of a program for recovery and rehabilitation, including social amelioration program and provision of safety nets to all affected sectors.
Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte assured the public that Congress would be exercising its oversight functions to ensure that all acts performed by the Duterte administration are within the bounds of the special but limited powers—and with restrictions—that the Congress has vested in President Duterte so his government could best deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
As a safeguard, the bill proposes the creation of a joint congressional oversight committee to closely monitor the actions of the executive branch, he said.
The House version of the bill requires the President to submit monthly reports to Congress on acts carried out to contain the spread of the virus.
The human rights group Karapatan, however, said the granting of emergency powers to the President would pave the way for martial law.
“With Duterte’s propensity to use and abuse his power as Chief Executive to violate people’s rights, this move, using the pandemic as an excuse, is one step closer to, if not already an embodiment of, martial rule. Duterte seems to be more than eager to use his emergency powers to give himself full, absolute and sole authority, and tighten his grip on power,” Karapatan said in a statement.
Karapatan said this bid for emergency powers is “a bid for potential abuse of power.”
Moreover, after actively downplaying the outbreak for the past weeks by bragging that we are a “model country,” the irony of this bid for emergency powers is that it is an admission of the administration’s failure to combat this pandemic, Karapatan said. With Willie Casas