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

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:

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:

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

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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