By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Congress will still have oversight powers over the proposed grant of an authority to President Duterte to carry out policies to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and its immediate effects to the country.
This was the assurance of Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday, as two chambers of the legislative branch convene their special session to discuss measures to the government combat coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Sotto dismissed public concerns on the bill initially proposed by the executive department asking Congress to grant Duterte emergency powers 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 pinag-uusapan nilang kopya, draft ng kung sinong abogado eh. Eh, hindi tama ‘yon,” the Senate chief told DZMM radio.
(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 its author. The copy of the bill they were talking about was just a draft written by a lawyer. And that is not correct)
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 ovf 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.
Power over funds
The Senate also proposed to give President Duterte the authority to “allocate cash, funds, investments, including unutilized or unreleased subsidies and transfers, held by GOCCs (government-owned and -controlled corporations) or any government agency for whatever purpose the President may deem necessary and desirable to address the COVID-19 emergency.”
The President may also direct the cancellation of appropriated programs, projects or activities of any agency of the executive department under the 2019 and 2020 national budgets and “utilize the savings generated therefrom to augment the allocation for any item” for support operations, response measures, and other programs aimed at solving the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Any unutilized or unreleased balance in a special purpose fund as of the date of the declaration of State of Emergency, shall be considered to have their purpose abandoned for the duration of the State of Emergency. All such unspent, and utilized or unreleased money or funds sourced from collections or receipts, including future collections and receipts, shall be utilized and are hereby appropriated for such measures to address the COVID-19 situation,” the bill also stated.
The President, it added, may “reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation in the 2020 GAA for whatever purpose [he] may deem necessary.”
Other powers proposed to be granted to the President include the regulation of distribution and use of power, fuel, energy, and water; as well as the movement of deadlines and timelines for the payment of taxes, fees, and other charges required by law; and continue to authorize alternative work arrangements in the executive department.
As Sotto mentioned, a joint congressional oversight committee shall be established to determine if the government’s measures are within the restrictions provided in the bill.
The bill also proposes penalties for the violation of the rules imposed by the national government.
Meanwhile, Section 7 of the bill states that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed or interpreted as a restriction of the Bill of Rights or of the Constitution. In case the exercise of the powers herein granted conflicts the with other laws, this Act shall prevail.”
While it was not included in the Senate bill, Sotto said the measure being crafted by Congress essentially seeks to help the families displaced by the quarantine measures being implemented amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to him, an P8,000 per family cash assistance for two months would be proposed for distribution to 18 million low-income families.
“Pera na lang ang bigay natin sa tao, doon sa mga 18 million families na isang kahig isang tuka. ‘Yon ang mga hirap eh. So iyon ang bottomline nito,” he told DZMM.
(Let’s just give cash to people, to the 18 million families who can’t eat if they don’t work. Those are the ones having a hard time. That’s the bottomline of this.)
Concerned agencies will be in charge of crafting the guidelines to implement such a program, he said.
As of writing, the Senate has suspended its special session, attended by 12 senators.