MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte wants Congress to allow him to re-program P275 billion worth of public funds for the novel coronavirus outbreak without providing lawmakers a list of the things or services that need allocation.
This became clear on Monday, March 23, as lawmakers gathered online and at the Batasan Pambansa in a special session to deliberate on House Bill (HB) No. 6616 – a carbon copy of the measure drafted by Malacañang seeking to grant Duterte “emergency powers” to respond to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
During the plenary debates,ex-health secretary-turned-Senior Deputy Minority Leader Janette Garin and Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago asked Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte – HB 6616 sponsor – to provide a breakdown of the total amount Duterte could utilize under the bill.
“Right now, off-budget that is available is total of P275 billion,” Villafuerte said.
Of that amount, a lump sum of P200 billion would go to the Emergency Subsidy Program, while another P75 billion would be alloted for health services like purchasing COVID-19 test kits, protective gear for health workers, and equipping quarantine centers across the nation.
But Villafuerte could not provide any number of testing kits, protective gear, and others would be needed to merit that allocation.
Rather, he said the executive branch is “likely” drafting it now and Congress would be provided a copy once HB 6616 is passed into law.
“With regards to total breakdown, that is part of the reporting to Congress. I am sure as we speak it is being totaled and I am sure they will provide Congress with that,” said Villafuerte, who is also Camarines Sur 2nd District congressman.
Section 4 of HB 6616 would authorize Duterte to cancel appropriated programs of any agency of the executive department and “utilize the savings generate there from to augment the allocation for any item for support operations, response measures, and other such projects or activities in the 2020 national budget “as the President may deem necessary.”
This only means that if both the House and the Senate pass HB 6616 in its current form, then Duterte would have the freedom to re-align the P275 billion to any program he wishes – without going through the proper scrutiny of legislators first.
Marikina 2nd District Representative Stella Quimbo then asked Villafuerte if there are at least guidelines under HB 6616 to ensure “only what is needed will be actually be utilized.”
Villafuerte did not answer the question directly, but said Congress can later perform its oversight function to scrutinize if the funds were appropriately spent.
“The guidelines of course will be laid out after this bill has been passed into law. Again, as part of the oversight function of Congress, we’ll make sure that all concerns ng ating kapwa congressmen and women at ng ating constitutents ay masama po sa guidelines na ‘yan (of our fellow congressmen and women and our constituents will be included in these guidelines),” Villafuerte said.
In the Senate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III filed a version of the measure that would grant Duterte 19 “special” powers to deal with the COVID-19 break. (READ: Duterte’s request to take over private business ‘merely standby power’)
To date, the Philippines has tallied a total of 396 cases of COVID-19, of which 33 are fatal. Only 18 patients have recovered so far from the disease.
Read the full text of HB 6616 below: