By Ellson Quismorio and Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Duterte administration has no intention to abuse the emergency powers that it is seeking from Congress to fight the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea assured House members on Monday.
Speaking during an unprecedented, digitally-aided special session, Medialdea said that the administration “simply desires to be equipped with all the legal authorities necessary for us to serve our people during this crisis in the most expeditious way.”
“The President and his administration has no intention at all to use these powers to its own advantage but only for our people’s advantage,” Medialdea said.
“We, therefore, approach the distinguished members of Congress, the elected legislators of our people, to ask for a law that would enable the President, the Executive branch, the legal authority to address this crisis, in a manner that is free from the restrictions, which, is beneficial during normal times, might prove disadvantageous during such an unusual time as this,” he said.
The Palace official told the solons that even with the pending approval of such powers, the national government does not want to overstep the bounds of Constitution “which is firmly in place even in times of emergency.”
While Medialdea enumerated several requested powers for President Duterte, he spent the most time explaining and justifying the proposed power to take over private establishments, which some described as akin
to martial law.
“And now I come to the requested power that has been steering some controversy since yesterday, and I believe unjustifiably so–the power to take over private establishments.
Even as originally worded, the intent of the proposal was to simply grant the government a standby power,” he said.
Medialdea added it is a power that the Palace “[does] 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 such 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 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.
“We are requesting it this early because we do not know how quickly our Congress can convene if and when we reach that point. Thus, for the benefit of our people, we opted to include it in our requested authorities,” said Medialdea.
The Mindanao example
Further addressing martial law fears, Medialdea noted how military rule “came and went peacefully” in Mindanao, thus showing that the administration had no predilection to abuse it.
“When this administration declared martial law in Mindanao, there were similar speculations that we were about to do away with our democratic institutions. But what happened? Martial law came and went peacefully without the abuses prevalent in the martial law of the 1970s and early 80s. In fact, the two cannot even be compared. It would be like
comparing a rotten apple to a freshly picked orange.”
He underscored that quick government response to needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic was the main thrust of the requested powers.
“In each of the powers that we are asking Congress to grant the President, our objective is to hasten the
delivery of services to those who are suffering, or those suspected of having COVID-19. To halt its spread and 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,” Medialdea said.
“Thus among the legal authorities we are asking from you today is the ability to purchase equipment for our health workers in the front lines in the most expeditious way possible without being restricted by existing procurement laws.”
The Executive Secretary likewise prodded Congress to enable the President to “more freely re-allocate the budget in the General Appropriations Act and use the funds in addressing COVID-19.”
Medialdea also asked lawmakers for power that would allow the national government to “swiftly deal with wayward officials” in local government units, in obvious reference to the reported insubordination from local officials in the implementation of directives cited under the ongoing enhanced community quarantine of Luzon.
“We also ask for authority to ensure that our local governments wouldfall in line with the national policy for dealing with this crisis…the confusion sowed by the local government units that are acting on their own, preventing the entry of people and cargo in their territories when the national government has already explained, has already exempted them from the
quarantine restriction is making life for the entire country more difficult than it already is.
“We believe that under existing laws, they already have that legal obligation to comply, with standards that the national government has set regarding community quarantine,” he said.
The Lower House was still deliberating on the request as of press time Monday.
Meanwhile, Senate President Vicente Sotto III allayed concerns by the public saying Congress will still have oversight powers over the proposed grant of authority to President Duterte to address the public health emergency.
“Huwag silang matatakot doon sa – meron daw emergency powers– walang emergency powers doon sa bill, ako author, eh…’Yong pinaguusapan nilang kopya, draft ng kung sinong abogado eh. Eh, hindi tama
‘yon (They should not worry about the –there was supposedly a request for emergency powers — there were no emergency powers in the bill, I I know because I’m the author. The copy of the bill they were talking about was just a draft written by a lawyer. And that is not correct),” the Senate chief told DZMM radio.
Before their special session on Monday morning, Sotto and Sen. Pia Cayetano filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 1413, which seeks to declare a national emergency and a national policy due to COVID-19 and authorize the President “for a limited period and subject to restrictions to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out” such policies.
The Senate version of the bill excluded a provision in the Palace’s draft bill requesting for the emergency powers, and replaced it with:
“It is imperative to grant him (the President) authority subject to such limitations as herein provided.”
SB 1413 specifically seeks to give Duterte 19 powers to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
These include: Adopt and implement measures to prevent or minimize further transmission and spread of COVID-19; Expedite medical testing and observation of persons under investigation (PUI) and persons under monitoring (PUM) and the immediate treatment of patients suffering from COVID-19;
Ensure that all LGUs (local government units) are acting in line with the rules and regulations set by the national government, particularly in implementing the guidelines of the community quarantine, while allowing them at the same time to continue their autonomy in matters undefined to the national government; and
“When public interest so requires, [the President can] direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, including other establishments, to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution location, or other temporary medical facilities; and public transportation to ferry health, emergency, and frontline personnel and others.”
This section, however, maintained that the management and operation of the enterprises would remain with the owners of the enterprises. It also provides for “reasonable compensation” for any damage or costs incurred for complying with the President’s orders.
On the other hand, this provision states that if enterprises “unjustifiably refuse or [signify] that they are no longer capable of operating…the President may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution.”
The President shall also continue to adopt measures to protect people from hoarding, profiteering, and manipulation of prices, among other “pernicious practices” affecting the supply and distribution and movement of food, clothing, medicine,
medical supplies, fuel, fertilizers, and other essential goods.
The bill further seeks to grant Duterte the power to undertake procurement of the following “as the
need arises, in the most expeditious manner” as exempted under the procurement and other relevant laws:
a. Medical supplies and goods such as personal protective equipment, surgical and laboratory equipment and supplies; and common medicines such as paracetamol, mefenamic acid, and vitamins;
b. Goods and services for social amelioration measures “in favor of affected communities”;
c. lease of real property or venue for use of health workers or serve as quarantine centers or temporary medical facilities;
d. establishment, construction, and operation of temporary medical facilities; and
e. Utilities, telecommunication, and other critical services in relation to operation of quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations and temporary medical facilities; and related services.