A PALACE-BACKED bill seeking to declare a national emergency and empower President Duterte to control private establishments and realign funds was approved by the House of Representatives on third and final reading on late Monday.
Voting 284 against nine with no abstention, the lawmakers approved the “Bayanihan Act of 2020” which seeks to address the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, in a special session that lasted until almost midnight.
In the special session, lawmakers led by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano convened the House into the committee of the whole to approve House Bill 6616 on first reading before returning to its plenary functions.
The move was undertaken to bypass the need for the bill to undergo the ordinary process of legislation in the committee level.
Only 20 congressmen were allowed to physically attend the session because of the need to observe social distancing. At least 200 House members, however, were able to participate in the plenary deliberations through teleconferencing via Zoom app and Viber group chat.
HB 6616 allows — when public interest so requires — the President to “direct the operation of private hospitals, health facilities, hotels and other similar establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas or quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations or other temporary medical facilities.”
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, defending the measure, told lawmakers: “And now I come to the requested power that has been stirring 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.”
Medialdea, however, said the executive does not consider it necessary for such a power “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.”
“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.
Medialdea also cited the administration’s track record when it placed the whole of Mindanao under martial law, saying it “came and went peacefully without the abuses prevalent in the marital law of the 1970s and early 80s.”
Deputy speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, one of the bill’s authors, defended the proposal on the floor, saying there will be no “takeover” of private establishments but a “directing of its operations if there’s a need.”
“It will happen only when the numbers of Pews (persons under investigation), PMs (persons under monitoring) continue to rise,” he told Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor. “The executive has a good track record when given special powers.”
Villafuerte told Iloilo Rep. Janet Garin, a former health secretary, that the private establishments will be returned to their rightful owners after the emergency.
‘PRONE TO CORRUPTION’
Under Section 4, the bill empowers the President to “reprogram, re-allocate and realign any appropriation in the FY2020 GAA for whatever purpose the President may deem necessary and desirable to fund measures to address and respond to the COVID-19 emergency, including social amelioration for affected communities and the recovery and rehabilitation of areas where the emergency is subsiding.”
“All amounts so reprogrammed, reallocated or realigned shall be deemed automatically appropriated for such measures to address the COVID-19 situations,” it said.
Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) party-list Rep. France Castro opposed the provision, saying giving the President a free hand to realign and reallocate funds under the 2020 GAA will be a mistake.
“That’s discretionary (on the part of the President to spend the budget). That’s prone to corruption,” said the left-leaning lawmaker.
Villafuerte, however, said that under Section 5 of the bill, an oversight committee tasked to report to Congress will be formed.
“We’ll make sure there will be zero corruption,” said the lawmaker, who said that the P275 billion that the President has at his disposal will fund cash grants to 18 million families who are part of the informal employment sector, the sector which is worst hit by the lockdown.
The amount is mostly “off-budget” or savings from the previous year’s national budget, Villafuerte said, noting that P200 billion will be spent for the emergency subsidy program for the poor while P75 billion will be used to fund the government’s health concerns and other medical services.
Responding to Manila Rep. Benny Abante, Villafuerte maintained that the provision is legal and constitutional.
“Yes, that’s why there’s a need to pass this. In times like this, we need to give the executive branch flexibility, he should be empowered to realign unessential goods (in the budget) such as travels,” he said.
The administration lawmaker said the additional powers will be for a “limited period and subject to restrictions.”
“It’s two months or longer or if the calamity will persist,” he said. “It’s within (the) bounds of law and (it’s) constitutional.”
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said that by allowing the President to reallocate funds under this year’s budget, Congress is giving the President powers that are “too broad.”
“The Constitution states that no law shall be passed allowing the transfer of appropriations and the only exemption is when there are savings,” he said.
Villafuerte, however, said only a law can amend another law, referring to HBN 6616 and the 2020 GAA, respectively.
“That’s what we’re doing now. We need at least P100 billion for the informal sector because they are under no-work, no-pay status and that’s why we allotted P200 billion only for two months. When the need exceeds that, we’ll need to give executive power to reallocate non-essentials that can be realigned,” he said.
Deputy majority leader Bernadette Herrera said Section 4, No. 14 of the bill should be amended to delete the word “cancellation” of appropriated programs, projects or activities (P/A/Ps) in favor of COVID response expenditures and replace it with “suspension” of expenditures of appropriated P/A/Ps.
Herrera said cancellation of appropriations is a contradiction of terms, “it does not exist in the budget universe, or more accurately, it violates E.O. (Executive Order) 292 Book VI (National Government Budgeting).”
“By definition, appropriations is the authority to spend granted by Congress to the President. Once the authority to spend is granted, the budget enters the realm of budget execution. Appropriation becomes allotments, obligations, disbursements, in short, expenditures. Hence the proper term is suspension,” she said.