The House of Representatives’ collective mindset before and after the declaration of the pandemic in March 2020 were vastly different. This affected the legislative priorities of the chamber, which had to reprogram itself on the fly to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.
It was December 2019. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano led the House, which was on a high, thanks to its impressive popularity ratings. The Philippines overall championship-bagging performance in the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEAG), held in the country, was a major talking point given Cayetano’s concurrent capacity as top organizer for the event. The Lower Chamber had also approved the proposed 2020 budget bill on time, ensuring that there would be no reenacted budget.
If there was one tough business that the House had to deal with over the horizon, it was the politically charged franchise renewal application of television and radio giant ABS-CBN. But the House leadership didn’t see a reason to bullrush it; they had time.
By the tailend of March 2020, the House found itself rushing the passage of a law that was meant to cushion the COVID-19 punch that nobody saw coming. The law came to be the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (“Bayanihan 1”), the House version of which was approved during a special session on March 24, 2020.
Bayanihan to Heal as One Act
The law, designated as Republic Act (RA) 11469, gave President Duterte the authority to reallocate, realign, and reprogram almost P275 billion from the 2020 national budget – among other things – in order to respond to the pandemic. This was enacted at a time when local COVID infections were on a steady climb.
A key feature of Bayanihan 1 was the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) – in essence a dole-out, but one that was badly needed by Filipinos who were unable to work due to the government-imposed lockdown.
Under SAP, some 18 million low-income families would get two rounds of cash aid worth P5,000 to P8,000 each, depending on the area they are from. This ensured the families’ temporary survival even as authorities tried to control the spread or the new coronavirus.
Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee
It was also on March 24, 2020 when the House formed the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC). A brainchild of Cayetano’s, the DCC would henceforth handle all measures that had to do with responding to the pandemic and/ or mitigating its effects.
The ad hoc panel is comprised of five clusters: the new normal, health and COVID response, social amelioration, economic stimulus response, and peace and order clusters. Cayetano and current Majority Leader Martin Romualdez act as co-chairmen of the “mother” DCC panel.
The tackling of pandemic-related measures via the DCC dominated House work from April to September, when the congressman finally shifted their attention to passing the 2021 General Appropriations Bill or proposed national budget.
The DCC ultimately helped pass six House Bills on third and final reading, namely House Bill (HB) No. 6815, or the proposed Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE) Act; HB No. 6816, or the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST) Act; HB No. 6817, or the COVID-19-Related Anti-Discrimination Act; HB No. 6864, or the Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act; HB No. 6865, or the Crushing COVID-19 Act; and HB No. 6920 or the COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) Act.
However, the future of the panel is somewhat uncertain following the ouster of Cayetano from the Speakership in mid-October. He was replaced by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco.
“The creation of the DCC was one of the best decisions that the House of Representatives made in addressing the needs of our people in this age of pandemic,” reckoned Romualdez.
“Through that committee, we were able to conduct public consultations and hear directly from our people their concerns with regard to the virus outbreak. The marathon hearings provided us with the real grasp of issues, which allowed us to focus on what needs to be prioritized,” he said.
What exactly were the measures approved by the DCC? HB No. 6815 seeks to establish an economic stimulus strategy for the country’s growth and development in the aftermath of COVID-19; HB No. 6816 seeks to ensure Philippine financial industry resiliency against the COVID-19 pandemic; while an Act prohibiting the discrimination of persons who are declared confirmed, suspect, probable, and recovered cases of COVID-19 is embodied in HB No. 6817.
On the other hand, HB No. 6864 proposes a “better normal” in the workplace and public places by establishing new policies, regulations, and public health safeguards; HB No. 6865 mandates the conduct of baseline polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 testing for vulnerable members of the society to stop the transmission of the disease; while HB No. 6920 establishes the CURES fund, instituting mechanisms for the implementation thereof and appropriating funds therefor.
“I commend my colleagues for their hard work in introducing legislative measures and producing laws that helped us survive the present crisis,” Romualdez said.
“Based on our public consultations, we were able to come up with legislative measures that focus on three major themes: Kaligtasan, Kabuhayan, and Kaunlaran (Safety, Livelihood, and Progress). These measures made sure that our people are safe, free from financial worries, and bound for recovery the soonest time possible,” explained the majority leader.
Finding solutions to pandemic’s challenges
A party-mate of Velasco, Surigao del sur congressman and former deputy speaker Johnny Pimentel, said he believes the House did its part in finding solutions to the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“We have passed all bills regarding the response of government to COVID-19. We have done our obligations as far as our duty and mandate is concerned,” noted Pimentel, who is a senior member of ruling party, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban).
But Congress managed to crank out one more “Bayanihan” measure that also received President Duterte’s signature. The Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (“Bayanihan 2”) or RA No. 11494 was enacted on September 15, 2020.
Bayanihan 2 provides for a stimulus package of P140 billion in regular appropriation and P25 billion as stand-by fund. The follow-up to Bayanihan 1 has a more forward-looking tone as it is designed to provide the funds needed by government to stimulate the economy while strengthening the health sector. The business and health sectors bore the brunt of the pandemic and had to be supported in the long run, the legislators reckoned.
The 300-member House passed on third and final reading an amended version of HB No.8063 on December 15, 2020. The bill – certfied urgent by Malacañang –x was meant to extend the validity of funds under Bayanihan 2, since a huge portion of the allocation has yet to be released and utilized.
The amended HB No.8063 sets a new spending deadline of June 30, 2021, from the original December 19, 2020 expiration.
Asked what pieces of COVID-related legislation he was most proud of, Romualdez quickly pointed to the twin Bayanihan measures. “I consider the two Bayanihan laws as the most significant products that came out of the plenary deliberations,” he said.
“Without these laws, the national government would have found it difficult to address our people’s immediate needs,” he added.
More legislative response to the pandemic
The House wasn’t just reactive when it came to responding to the pandemic, however. There are at least two measures filed in the 18th Congress that deserve special mention for the sheer insight of displayed by its authors.
The first one is HB No.1248, or the E-Government Act. Filed by Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte back on July 3, 2019, the measure bats for a contactless, electronic-based system of services in all government offices and state-run corporations.
Villafuerte, a co-chairman of DCC’s social amelioration cluster, said the proposed legislation was meant to put flesh into President Duterte’s pitch in his State-of-the-Nation Address in July 2020 to do away with paper-based transactions and physical queuing in government offices. The bill’s approval at the committee level was expedited due its newfound importance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Bating Filipino’ greeting
The second such measure is Marikina City Rep. Bayani Fernando’s House Resolution No. 408, which urges the government to replace the usual handshake with the “Bating Filipino” or Filipino greeting. This gesture involves placing one’s palm on the center of the chest and a slight nod toward the other person.
“The medical profession has established that the traditional, well-meaning, and innocent gesture of handshake transmits communicable diseases and is a risk to one’s health. The Philippine government is urged to promote this gesture (Bating Pilipino) of goodwill and praise so that this will become a customary practice of all Filipinos,” Fernando wrote in his resolution, which was also filed back in July 2019 or over a year before the pandemic.