Congress okays ‘Bayanihan’ bill; Duterte gets special powers over funds

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    President Duterte at a virtual briefing on the status of COVID-19 at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, with some officials of government.

    – With Wendell Vigilia and Jocelyn Montemayor

    THE Senate early Tuesday passed on third and final reading the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” granting President Duterte the authority to “exercise powers necessary and proper” to contain the worsening COVID-19 crisis.

    The House of Representatives later in the day adopted the Senate version of the Palace-drafted measure to do away with congressional bicameral discussions, which could delay the approval of the proposed legislation.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, who is also the presidential spokesman, assured the public that the President will utilize the special powers given by Congress in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, even as he pointed out that safeguards were included in the measure to deter abuse.

    The Senate’s Bayanihan Act, which was jointly proposed by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Pia Cayetano, gives Duterte standby authority to realign portions of the 2020 budget to fund aggressive government strategies to contain the spread of COVID-19 and cushion the economic and social impacts of the disease and the Luzon-wide enhanced lockdown to more than 18 million daily wage earners.

    “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, reprogram, reallocate, and realign from savings on other items of appropriations in the FY 2020 GAA (General Appropriations Act) in the Executive Department, as may be necessary and beneficial to fund measures that address and respond to the COVID-19 emergency, including social amelioration for affected communities,” the measure read.

    The bill likewise gives authority to the President to allocate cash, funds, investments, including unused or unreleased subsidies and transfers held by any government-owned and controlled corporation or any national government agency to address COVID-19.

    Under the measure, the President shall have the power to adopt the following temporary emergency measures: follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and best practices to suppress the transmission and spread of COVID-19, expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by public and designated private institutions of persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs), and to compulsory isolate and treat patients.

    The measure also allows the President to realign funds to provide emergency subsidy of P5,000 to P8,000 a month to 18 million low-income households nationwide which will last for a minimum of two months; ensure that all public health workers are protected by providing them with a COVID-19 Special Risk Allowance on top of the hazard pay recently approved by Malacanang; direct the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PHIC) to shoulder the medical expenses of public and private health workers in case of contamination of the virus; provide a P100,000 compensation to each public and private health worker who may be infected with the virus while in the line of duty; and grant P1 million to each public and private health worker who will succumb to the infectious disease, retroactive to February 1).

    The bill also grants the President the power to direct privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, including passenger vessels and other establishments, to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution centers; and public transportation to ferry health, emergency, and front line personnel. The government is mandated to fully compensate the enterprises in case of temporary takeover, and management and operation of the enterprises shall be retained by the owners

    Still under the measure, the President can direct banks and other financial institutions to implement a 30-day grace period for all loan payments, and to also provide a 30-day leeway on residential rents due within the lockdown period without incurring interests, penalties, fees, and other charges.

    For transparency and accounting purposes, the President is required to submit to Congress every Monday a report on all acts it has performed under the law.

    VOTING

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III said all 12 senators who were present during the special session called by the President last Monday voted in favor of the measure.

    Aside from Sotto, the senators present who voted in the affirmative were Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto, and Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Pia Cayetano, Manuel “Lito” Lapid, Panfilo Lacson, Grace Poe, Richard Gordon, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, Christopher Go, and Francis Tolentino.

    Sotto said eight senators who were not around during the special session also expressed their votes via phone patch, of which seven voted in favor, and one voted against. Sen. Risa was the lone dissenting vote.

    The senators who voted via phone patch were Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, Juan Edgardo Angara, Joel Villanueva, Ronald dela Rosa, Francis Pangilinan, Nancy Binay, and Cynthia Villar.

    Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senators Imee Marcos, Aquilino Pimentel III, and Leila de Lima were not able to vote even through a phone call.

    Sotto said only the votes of the 12 senators present during the special session are counted as official votes. The votes of the eight senators who were physically absent was technically counted “and their manifestations (will be) reflected on record.”

    “We can technically say 19 voted in favor, no abstention, and one negative vote. But only 12 votes in plenary (are official),” Sotto said.

    Hontiveros said she voted “no” because the measure grants the President unchecked powers “that are open to abuse and corruption.”

    “I am very alarmed by the potential for abuse and lack of accountability in giving the President near-absolute control over public funds in national government agencies and even government-owned and controlled corporations,” Hontiveros said.

    Drilon reminded Malacanang that all purchases to be incurred by the President during the state of national calamity are subject to audit rules and regulations.

    “The rules on audit is still applicable here even if the President was given vast powers to realign existing budget to fund other programs,” Drilon, a former justice secretary, and four-time Senate president, said.

    Panelo assured the President will not abuse his standby powers.

    “The proposed statute directs the Executive Branch to issue periodic reports of its implementation of necessary interventions to combat this pandemic. The Filipino people are assured that the powers granted the President shall be enforced strictly in accordance with the Constitution. The grant of powers is for a limited period and subject to the restrictions contained therein,” Panelo said.

    He advised the public to be wary of rumors and false news designed to create panic and confusion propagated by enemies of peace and order.