House OKs bill granting Duterte 25 special powers to address coronavirus pandemic

Mara Cepeda
House OKs bill granting Duterte 25 special powers to address coronavirus pandemic
(UPDATED) Hours after approving the bill, however, House lawmakers agree to just adopt the Senate version of the measure

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The House of Representatives passed the bill that would declare a “state of national emergency” and grant President Rodrigo Duterte 25 special powers to address the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.  

At 11:45 pm on Monday, March 23, an overwhelming 284 lawmakers voted yes to House Bill (HB) No. 6616 on 3rd and final reading during the lower chamber’s first-ever special session conducted through Zoom teleconferencing. Only 9 House members voted no, while none abstained from the vote. 

Three hours later at past 3 am Tuesday, March 24, the House agreed to just adopt the Senate version of the measure. This means both chambers no longer need to convene the bicameral conference committee and the bill can now be sent to Duterte for his signature.

HB 6616 would put the country under a state of national emergency due to the continuing surge in COVID-19 cases, which stands at 462 as of Monday

It would also authorize Duterte to exercise 25 special powers “necessary and proper to carry out” the declared national policy. 

Lawmakers, however, noticeably took out the controversial provision that authorizes Duterte to “temporarily take over or direct the operation” of privately-owned businesses and utilities. (READ: Duterte’s request to take over private business ‘merely standby power’)

Instead, Duterte would be authorized to “direct the operation” of any privately-owned hospitals and medical facilities to house health workers and serve as quarantine areas. The President may also “direct the operation” of public transportation to ferry frontliners from one destination to another. 

The controversial “takeover” of operations clause is still retained in HB 6616, but this time it only covers medical facilities and public transportation necessary to aid frontline workers. 

Section 4(4) states: “If the foregoing enterprises unjustifiably refuse or signify that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises for the purpose stated herein, the President may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution.” 

If passed into law, HB 6616 would take effect immediately once it is published in a newspaper of general circulation or in the Official Gazette. It would have the full force and effect of law for 3 months, unless Congress extends it. 

HB 6616 underwent major revisions in a span of 14 hours – from the time the measure was initially filed on Monday, to its approval by the committee of the whole, to its final passage in the House. Several lawmakers and lawyers alike have pointed out that parts of the original version of the bill may be unconstitutional. (READ: Heal as one? Why Duterte’s special budget powers bill may be unconstitutional)

Why is it needed? HB 6616 argues a state of national emergency is imperative to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and immediately mobilize assistance to Filipinos – especially indigents – who are affected by the lockdowns imposed across the country, including the entire island of Luzon.

The same goes for the grant of special powers to the President.

“In order to optimize the efforts of the President to carry out the tasks needed to implement the aforementioned policy, it is imperative to grant him authority subject to such limitations as hereinafter provided,” HB 6616 said.

What powers would be granted to the President? Duterte would have the power to “re-pogram, reallocate, and realign” parts of the P3.757-trillion national budget in 2019 and the current P4.1-trillion national budget in 2020 to “support operations and response measures which are necessary or beneficial in order to address the COVID-19 emergency.”

The President would also have the power to allocate funds held by any government-owned or -controlled corporation or any national government agency. 

The bill now explicitly states the following items would be prioritized for budget augmentation:

  • Department of Health (DOH): operational budgets of government hospitals, primarily those identified for COVID-19; prevention and control of other infectious disease; emergency preparedness and response; Quick Response Fund
  • University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital
  • National Disaster Risk Reduction Fund
  • Department of Labor and Employment: programs “such as but not limited to” Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers and COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program
  • Department of Trade and Industry: Livelihood Seeding Program and Negosyo Serbisyo sa Barangay
  • Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD): programs “such as but not limited to” Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations, distribution of food and non-food items, and livelihood assistance grants
  • Allocations to local government units
  • Quick Response Funds lodged in the various “relevant” departments like DOH and DSWD

Still, the bill provides no clear breakdown of where these reallocated funds would go. Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, who had sponsored HB 6616 in the plenary, earlier said the President could utilize a whopping P275 billion if the measure is passed.  

The President would also have the power to reprogram unspent, unutilized, or unreleased money under special purpose funds to help fight the pandemic. 

Other special powers to be granted to Duterte include the following:

  • Adopt and implement measures to prevent or suppress further transmission and spread of COVID-19 through effective education, detection, protection, and treatment
  • Streamline the accreditation of testing kits, facilitate the prompt testing of persons under investigation and persons under monitoring, and immediate isolation and treatment of patients
  • Ensure all local government units are “acting in line” with the rules set by the national government
  • Continue to enforce measures against hoarding, profiteering, manipulation of prices, and other acts that would affect the supply and distribution of food and other goods
  • Ensure there will be no delays in the donation, acceptance, and distribution of health products necessary to fight COVID-19
  • Undertake “in the most expeditious manner” procurement of goods like protective gear for health workers, testing kits, medical supplies; goods and services for social amelioration measures for affected communities; lease of real property for use of health workers or to serve as quarantine centers; construction of temporary medical facilities; utilities, telecommunications, and other critical services in relation to the operation of quarantine centers and other medical services
  • Engage the services of humanitarian agency Philippine Red Cross
  • Hire temporary human resources for health 
  • Lower lending rates of interest and reserve requirements of lending institutions
  • Liberalize grants for incentives of manufacture or importation of supplies needed to address the pandemic
  • Require businesses to prioritize and accept contract for services that would help fight COVID-19
  • Regulate and limit the operation of all forms of land, sea, and air transportation
  • Regulate traffic on all roads and bridges
  • Authorize alternative working arrangements for employees in the executive branch and, if necessary, other branches of government, constitutional bodies, and the private sector
  • Regulate the distribution of power, fuel, energy, and water
  • Move statutory deadline and timelines for the filing of any document, payment of taxes and fees, and the grant of any benefit
  • Direct all banks and other financial institutions like the Government Service Insurance System, Social Security System, and Pag-ibig Fund to implement a 30-day grace period for loan payments
  • Provide 30-day grace period for the payment of residential rents falling between March 16 to April 15, 2020
  • Implement an “expanded and enhanced” Pantawid Pamilya Program 
  • Undertake such other measures “as may be reasonable and necessary” to respond to the pandemic 

Is there a checks and balances provision? Yes. Section 5 would require Duterte to submit a weekly report to the 18th Congress every Monday of every week. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.