Romualdez backs special authority for Duterte

Martin Romualdez
House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep Martin Romualdez presides over the Committee of the Whole with selected 20 House Members at the plenary during the special session to mobilize government resources needed by the Executive Department to help contain the spread of COVID 19.
Photo by VER NOVENO

HOUSE Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez on Monday justified the grant of special authority to President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte through the passage of “Bayanihan Act of 2020” that would realign P275-billion under this year’s national budget to curb the coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) pandemic during Monday’s historic special session.

“This bill seeks to grant special authority to President Rodrigo Duterte to address the crisis spawned by the novel coronavirus. Such authority is needed not only to control the COVID-19 pandemic now gripping the country, but also to immediately mobilize resources for the provision of basic necessities to families and individuals affected by the imposition of Community Quarantine, especially indigents and their families,” Romualdez told his colleagues in his sponsorship speech of House Bill (HB) 6616 or the Bayanihan Act of 2020 during a special session presided by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Raneo Abu.

The measure was expected to be approved Monday by the House of Representatives on third and final reading.

With the enactment of this measure, Romualdez said the President is empowered, among others, to exercise the special authority “within a limited period to respond to the public health emergency” with restrictions where Congress can exercise its oversight function aimed at guaranteeing checks and balances.

It was Romualdez who moved for the adoption of the motion allowing “members to participate via live streaming, to register their attendance and vote on any matter presented to the body by voice chat, text message, viber or other electronic channels using their contact numbers pre-registered by the members and verified by the secretary general.”

Under the approved measure by the Committee of the Whole chaired by Romualdez, President Duterte will have the authority to "direct the operation of privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, hotels, and other similar establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations, or other temporary medical facilities."

The measure will also permit the President to direct the operation of public transportation systems to carry health, emergency and frontline personnel, and other persons.

The Bayanihan Act of 2020 will also grant President Duterte the authority to "reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation" under the 2020 P4.1 trillion national budget to ensure logistical support in the fight against COVID-19.

“The measure, once approved, will immediately and amply provide healthcare, including medical tests and treatments, to COVID-19 patients, persons under investigation, and persons under monitoring. It also mandates formulation of a program for recovery and rehabilitation, including social amelioration program and provision of safety nets to all affected sectors.

Specifically, the bill seeks to empower the President to order the purchase of goods like testing kits, to lease properties and to 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,” said Romualdez.

In his sponsorship speech, Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte has explained that HB No. 6616 will empower President Duterte to realign or reallocate as much as P275 billion in budget and off-budget outlays to the government’s emergency subsidy program to provide relief to some 18 million Filipino households most affected by the coronavirus pandemic and for the treatment of persons infected with this lethal pathogen known as Covid-19.

In his sponsorship speech, Villafuerte said HB 6616—dubbed the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act—seeks to vest the President with special powers to realign, reprogram or reallocate portions of the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA), along with off-budget funds of state-run corporations and national government agencies, primarily for relief programs like food rations and cash transfers for these 18 million households and for health-related priority programs to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“A major casualty of this virus is our resurgent economy, as the pandemic threatens to stop dead on its tracks the growth momentum that our country has been experiencing,” said Villafuerte in his sponsorship speech.

“But other than the infected persons themselves and more than the domestic economy, the biggest casualty from the pandemic are, collectively, the poor and low-income Filipinos who have lost their jobs or sources of livelihood as a result of the lockdown in Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon, as well as in other communities elsewhere where local government units (LGUs) have likewise restricted personal movement in the hope of containing Covid-19,” he said.

Villafuerte said the lockdowns in Luzon and elsewhere have shoved the national and local economies almost to a standstill, thereby dislocating an estimated 18 million Filipino families who live by the no-work, no-pay system.

“They have no other means of earning a living or fending for themselves for the duration of the community quarantine,” he said.

“Baka po mamatay ang marami sa kanila, hindi dahil sa coronavirus pero dahil sa tinding gutom sa mga darating na linggo na tayo ay nakapailalim sa lockdown at sila ay walang mapagkitaan upang buhayin ang kani-kanilang mga pamilya at mga mahal sa buhay.”

Interpellated by House senior Deputy Minority Leader and Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, a former Health secretary, Villafuerte said P200 billion will be allotted for the emergency program for the 18 million households, while the balance of P75 billion will go to health-related initiatives and other services.

“Thus we have P275 billion that can be made available quickly for the Bayanihan Heal as One Act,’ said Villafuerte, one of the first legislators who had called on President Duterte to convene a special session of the Congress so it could pass legislation that would enable the government to best deal with the pandemic.

In keeping with his earlier proposal on forced savings under the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA), Villafuerte said in his speech, “This measure will also authorize the transfer of funds intended for non-essential expenditures to essential ones, particularly the emergency subsidies for the marginalized and vulnerable, as well as relief and recovery programs for affected workers and small and medium-sized businesses.”

“This bill will also allow the government to adequately equip and protect our countless health practitioners who are at the frontlines of our battle against Covid-19,” he said. “Their selflessness and bravery inspire us as we undertake this task.”

As a former governor of CamSur, he said “local government unit (LGU) officials who are now in the forefront of the battle against the pandemic will welcome this measure as it will allow them to revisit their approved budget plans and, like the President, allow them to realign, reprogram or reallocate portions of their respective budget programs to scale-up their respective response systems against Covid-19.”

“The proposed “Bayanihan Heal as One Act” will let the national and local governments raise spending on urgent measures to protect Filipinos from the onslaught of Covid-19, without sacrificing the outlays in the 2020 GAA comprising the unmatched state investments in infrastructure modernization,  human capital development and social protection, particularly for the poor and underprivileged sectors,” he said.

Interpellated by Act Teachers Rep. France Castro, Villafuerte explained that, considering the ensuing global health crisis, President Duterte should be given the “flexibility” to make budget and off-budget realignments to raise enough resources for the government’s, response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Villafuerte explained that the Chief Executive should, for one, be given flexibility to reallocate for essential programs the funds in the 2020 GAA for non-essentials like travel.

He said the special but limited powers will let the President reprogram, reallocate and realign 2020 GAA appropriations for any and all programs necessary and desirable” to address and respond to Covid-19, which has infected 396 Filipinos and killed 38 of them as of Monday.

The next budget priorities, he said, are to allow the Chief Executive to use available resources for the purchase of rapid testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPEs) to enable the country’s health front-liners to protect themselves and better treat persons infected with this dreaded virus; and for relief packages to small and medium-sized businesses so they could survive and recover quickly at the end of the health crisis.

Villafuerte earlier proposed that a sizeable portion of the funds be set aside for the purchase of rapid testing kits as well as PPEs to better equip frontline health workers in treating patients as the government braces for a possible surge in infections.

He said, “the government will need to buy more than enough Covid-19 test kits to diagnose persons exhibiting symptoms of the illness and asymptomatic ones exposed to infected patients, now that the DoH (Department of Health) has assured the public it was ‘accelerating its Covid-19 testing capacity’ as the caseload of confirmed infections continued to rise in Metro Manila and elsewhere in the country.”

Villafuerte, who attended last Saturday’s meeting at the Palace of Congress leaders and Cabinet members on the special session, said the government would also need to allot funds to possibly convert public buildings into temporary hospitals or put up tents as temporary annexes to health facilities treating Covid-19 cases, as the acceleration of the DOH’s testing capacity will mean the identification of a far bigger number of patients positive for the virus who will then require medical treatment.