Special session on virus: Just funds or powers?

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By Jovee Marie N. Dela Cruz, Butch Fernandez & Samuel P. Medenilla

BOTH chambers of Congress convene for separate special sessions on Monday, to arm the government with enough spending power to deal with the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) that has placed the entire Luzon island on lockdown and is gouging businesses big and small while impacting millions of daily-wage earners and straining the health-care system.

The disclosure of a document embodying Malacañang Palace’s request to Congress for the special session caused a stir on Sunday, however, amid fears that President Duterte might use it to ask lawmakers for emergency powers, including measures as the takeover of private business.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III flatly denied they will tackle an emergency powers bill, saying he had made this clear in marathon meetings over the weekend at Malacañang between the President’s men and Congress leaders. He stressed that lawmakers committed to grant spending authority, not emergency powers.

The Palace, however, later on Sunday admitted that President Duterte will be seeking not just an additional budget but also additional powers, including taking over private companies, from Congress to combat the spread of Covid-19.

In a radio interview, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said Duterte will be requesting for “flexibility” in using the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) for government programs related to Covid-19.

He, however, confirmed that Duterte has also asked for powers to take over business.

Nograles said it will be up to Congress and the Senate to grant Duterte the power as well as thresh out guidelines, on how
the government will determine which companies it can take over for its Covid-19 operations.

“This will be subject of the debate in Congress and the Senate. Let us just wait for the outcome,” Nograles said.

“For us in the Executive [department] , we will follow whatever law will be passed by Congress,” he added.

P200-B realignment

The House of Representatives is eyeing to approve in a special session on Monday a measure empowering President Duterte to realign funds under the 2020 General Appropriations Act.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said more than P200 billion will be realigned to ensure the availability of food and medicines in the next two months.

The House, with over 300 members, will meet in “virtual session” as lawmakers have been on break since March 14 and some were caught by the lockdown while out of town; while the Senate, per Sotto, will likely shoot for getting a simply majority at least of 13 to physically come to the Senate building for a roll call and to confirm a quorum, before proceeding to virtual sessions.

The enhanced community quarantine, which Duterte has also called a lockdown, was declared midnight of March 17 and will be in effect until April 13, 2020. Most modes of movement have been restricted, including domestic travel and mass transport. The public has also been advised to remain at home except for essential activities, such as the purchase of food and necessary supplies. Local governments were directed by the President to be on top of the local situation and provide for the needs of their constituents.

Senate quorum

In a separate interview, Sen. Panfilo Lacson Jr. does not see Sotto having problems mustering a quorum for the Senate’s special session in the middle of the scheduled congressional recess from March 14 to May 3.

“First of all, the guidance given by Senate President Sotto is for the senators to be physically present in the first roll call,” Lacson said, adding this was conveyed when Sotto “virtually conducted a roll call in our online chat group.”

He said senators were advised to be ready by Monday 10 am, so they can tackle data needed for their plenary deliberations, even while awaiting the House to finish its business.

He, however, could not say for sure if the special session called by Malacañang to pass a supplemental budget could be done in one session day. “We don’t know, but we want to finish it as much as possible in one day, also to protect our Senate staff…especially our legislative staff” who might be exposed to the Covid virus.

Lacson said Sotto is not inclined to follow the House example of a virtual session. “He  [Sotto] said, we’re only 24 and I don’t want the next generation of senators to criticize us and say we violated Senate rules. The rules are basic—we adjourned March 11 so when we resume we are obliged to do a roll call.”

The senator aired hopes there would be no “disagreeing provisions” in the Senate and House versions to obviate convening a bicameral conference committee to hammer out a reconciled version to be submitted to the President for signing into law.

“This budget is not a supplemental budget. The first information we got was that we’re being asked to authorize the President to realign the 2020 budget or whatever is carried over from the 2019 budget,” Lacson said in a mix of English and Filipino.

He reported that per data he got, still not updated,  “as of Q3 2019 Statement of Appropriation, Allotment, Obligations and Balances, the unused appropriation was so huge,” though this is not yet final and they must ask the DBM for the yearend data.

No impact on taxes, infra

In approving the supplemental budget, Cayetano, citing Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, said the amount will come from nonbudgetary sources and this will not impact taxes as well as the Build, Build, Build program of the government.

Majority Leader Martin Romualdez said the special session will be conducted to mobilize government resources needed by the Executive Department to help contain Covid-19.

“Congress will be granting President Rodrigo Duterte the authority to specifically realign government funds for food, allowances to help the affected families, boost the medical requirements of the people and protection of those who are in the frontline, especially our doctors, nurses and all medical personnel,” he said.

Deputy Speaker for Finance Luis Raymund Villafuerte, meanwhile, assured the public that Monday’s session is in line with health and safety protocols at a time of enhanced quarantine and national public health emergency.

“We all have to adjust, including Congress, on how best we can function but keeping in mind protocols set by the Inter-Agency Task Force. If we do the normal session, we will not be able to fit in the plenary as per social-distancing guidelines,” he said.

In an advisory to lawmakers, the lower chamber said it will limit to 20 the number of lawmakers who would be physically present at the special session on Monday, March 23, at 10 a.m.

“We endeavored to ensure that all the major parties, including party-lists, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, and the Minority Bloc are represented,” the chamber said.

It also said there will be options for members to log in their attendance, cast their vote, and even speak during the special session.

“We will use a videoconferencing application called Zoom Cloud Meetings. This application is capable of hosting all House Members with a camera phone, tablet, or webcam, in a videoconference,” it added.

To implement social distancing, the leadership prohibited some members of the secretariat and the media from the session.

Full powers

House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Joey S. Salceda proposed a measure providing the President with full powers over the 2019 and 2020 budget and allocating P300 billion or 1.5 percent of gross domestic product for response and recovery efforts.

Salceda said the President “must not be restrained in his response by the provisions that we have made for ordinary times.”

“This is a matter of national survival. Every day counts here—whether in keeping infections low, or in keeping public order and safety. By our estimates based on the Family Income and Expenditure Survey, the savings of the poorest 12 million people in Luzon have been wiped out because of this lockdown—which was necessary but painful,” he said.

“The problem is immediate. The response needed is immediate. But the budget is restrained and the bureaucracy is intractable. We will lose under these conditions,” Salceda added.

Salceda’s proposal authorizes the President “to reallocate and realign any appropriation in the General Appropriations Act of 2019 and the General Appropriations Act of 2020” as well as funds and collections by national government agencies and government-owned corporations.

During a press briefing on Sunday, Salceda disclosed over half or P144 billion of the requested fund will provide assistance to workers affected by the community quarantine imposed for the entire Luzon and some parts of the Visayas and Mindanao.

Essentially, he said the amount will provide P8,000 to at least 17.9 million families affected by the quarantine and also incentive pay to frontliners in the government’s campaign to contain the spread of Covid-19 .

Among its expected beneficiaries are minimum-wage earners as well as daily paid workers such as tricycle and jeepney drivers.

Image credits: Nonie Reyes

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