MANILA - (UPDATE) A House leader on Sunday said he supported Malacañang's call to grant "special powers" for President Rodrigo Duterte to address the COVID-19 crisis.
The Palace has asked Congress to declare a national emergency and grant special powers to the President even as a lockdown was already in effect over the entire island of Luzon.
In a letter to Senate President Vicente Sotto III dated March 21, 2020, Duterte certified the need to immediately enact a proposed measure which, among others, will allow government to temporarily take over or direct operations of privately-owned utilities and businesses to address the effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
House Ways and Means Committee chair Joey Salceda said the measure "was absolutely necessary at this point."
"That’s why I asked Congressional leaders to call for a virtual session of Congress last week. The country needs it,” Salceda said in an interview over a government TV station.
“Pursuant to the provisions of Article VI, Section 26(2) of the 1987 Constitution, I hereby certify to the necessity of the immediate enactment of the attached Bill…in order to authorize the President to exercise powers necessary to carry out urgent measures to meet the COVID-19 national health emergency,” the President said in the letter transmitted to the Senate by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.
The measure is expected to be taken up on Monday during the special congressional session called by the President.
Under the proposed measure, the President is authorized to temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest, including but not limited to hotels, public transportation, and telecommunications entities.
Hotels will be used to house health workers or serve as quarantine centers or medical relief and aid distribution centers, while public transportation will ferry health, emergency and frontline personnel.
Take-over of telecommunication entities is intended to facilitate uninterrupted communication channels between the government and the public.
Management of these businesses will remain with the owners but the President or his representative will direct and supervise their operations, providing for a reasonable compensation for additional damage or costs incurred by the owner.
The same bill will also empower the President to purchase goods like testing kits, lease properties and construct temporary medical facilities without going through the rules on procurement, as well as require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services in connection with the fight against COVID-19.
The bill has provisions to regulate public and private transportation and traffic, as well as the distribution and use of power, fuel, energy and water to ensure adequate supply.
If the bill is enacted, the President can cancel appropriated programs, projects or activities to generate savings and to reallocate unused and unspent funds, or funds allocated for discontinued projects, to measures intended to address the COVID-19 emergency.
The proposed bill goes as far as repealing laws setting aside funds for specific or special projects that have remain unused so that the savings may be reallocated.
Another provision gives the President the power to realign any appropriation in the 2020 General Appropriations Act in order to fund measures to meet the emergency.
The bill also seeks to punish any violation of the rules, regulations and directives of the national government with 2 months jail time and a fine of between P10,000 to P1 million.
Salceda said he will especially support provisions to exempt the purchase of necessary medical supplies and other essential goods from the procurement law.
"Subsistence allowances will also be given to poor families affected by the enhanced quarantine through these powers. I already proposed that a few days ago, so I am thankful that the government is adopting the approach,” Salceda said.
Albay Congressman Edcel Lagman meanwhile said the bill's provisions on the “cancellation” and “reallocation” of appropriated funds may constitute “transfer of funds” prohibited under Section 25 of Article VI of the Constitution.
Lagman added that granting such power may not be necessary.
He said the social amelioration and pro-poor objectives of the funds, particularly those in the Health, Social Welfare, Labor, Trade and Agriculture departments "are clearly implementable without further realignments."
Lagman added that "under the General Provisions of the GAA, the President is already granted the power to use savings and to augment deficient funds of projects and programs from such savings."
In a text message, Sotto confirmed receipt of the draft bill, although he stressed that "After the title, nothing is written in stone."
He earlier told Senate reporters that key Duterte cabinet officials and legislative leaders, during a meeting Saturday, agreed to pass a bill that will give the President the “financial authority to realign funds available to address the COVID emergency crisis.”
The Senate will hold a special session to discuss the bill at 10am Monday.
The House of Representatives is also expected to discuss a counterpart bill.
Barry Gutierrez, Spokesperson of Vice President Leni Robredo, said they expect that lawmakers will have a thorough discussion of the bill "and that the final version of the law will allow government to take timely and effective action to ensure the health and safety of all Filipinos during this crisis, while including a clear policy direction and adequate safeguards against abuse."
The Philippine government has ramped up its response to the spread of the COVID-19 by first placing Metro Manila under community quarantine, suspending travel to and from the national capital region, and later expanding the coverage to the entire Luzon, suspending mass public transportation and restricting residents to their homes.
The country recorded 73 new COVID-19 cases by mid-Sunday, bringing the total number to 380. Six more people died, bringing the total deaths to 25, while the number of patients who recovered increased to 15.
-Report from Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News