The passage of a bill seeking to authorize President Rodrigo Duterte to exercise necessary powers to effectively respond to the impact of COVID-19 in the next three months was sought in the Senate on Monday as the country enters the next phase of the battle with the pandemic: reopening the economy.
Senate Bill No. 1564 or the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, sponsored by Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, seeks to facilitate the economic recovery after the health crisis bogged down operations of several business establishments in the country.
The proposed measure—to take effect after the Bayanihan to Heal as One lapses this month—enumerates several "necessary powers" that must be granted to the President until September 30, 2020, including the authority to allocate budget held by any government-owned and controlled corporation or any national government agency for COVID-19 response.
It provides for the appropriation of a P236-billion standby fund to support operation and response measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of this budget, P25 billion shall go to cash-for-work programs; P50 billion to the infusion of capital to government financial institutions; P30 billion to efforts to ramp up COVID-19 testing and other health care services; and P50 billion to support programs for public and private health care workers, displaced OFWs, and other affected workers in formal and informal workers.
A P46-billion budget was also earmarked to support the agriculture sector, while P25 billion will assist the critically impacted businesses in the transportation industry, and P10 billion will support the bogged-down tourism sector.
According to the bill, massive testing for COVID-19 must be conducted immediately in areas with high risks of transmission, and the accreditation of testing facilities shall likewise be expedited.
The provision of a P5,000 to P8,000 emergency subsidy to around 18 million low-income households under the enhanced community quarantine, and provision for the COVID-19 special risk allowance for public health workers, are still included in the Bayanihan 2, among others.
It also seeks to give a P8,000 tuition subsidy to private tertiary education students who have become financially challenged due to the pandemic and are currently not receiving any assistance from the government educational subsidy or voucher programs.
Qualified private elementary and high school students, on the other hand, shall be entitled to a P3,000 tuition subsidy.
A one-time cash assistance worth P5,000 to P8,000 shall likewise be extended to private school teaching and non-teaching employees who were affected and displaced by the pandemic.
The proposed Bayanihan law 2 also states that there shall be no phaseout on the national and local level of any public utility vehicle as the transportation industry "transitions to a new normal."
The first Bayanihan law was approved in a marathon session that lasted until the early morning of March 24. It was signed by Duterte into law on March 25 and was given an initial effectivity until June.
One of the key provisions of the measure was the emergency subsidy for around 18 million low-income families in the country for two months.
"We were careful and in fact we removed—I asked my staff along with the Senate's budget office, to carefully go through the Bayanihan 1 law and to strike out all the provisions which might be interpreted as being 'emergency' in character," Angara said.
"You will see in the Bayanihan 2 that there is no longer the provision which allows the President to take over the utilities or hospitals," he added.
Section 6, or the penal provision of the first Bayanihan Law, was also no longer included in this new bill.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon recently manifested that he is in support of extending the effectivity of necessary powers granted to Duterte, but he wants the repeal of the provision that enumerates prohibited acts during the health emergency.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, while emphasizing that he is not against the passage of the bill, said that a conflict that may arise if Congress approves Bayanihan Law 2 before the sine die adjournment this week.
"I have some reservations in enacting this bill into law before we adjourn because we might be running afoul of the Constitution," he said.
Lacson cited Article VI, Section 23 paragraph 2 of the Constitution which states that authorizations given by Congress to the President in times of war or other national emergency "shall cease upon the next adjournment thereof."
"We just have to wait because we are adjourning on the 4th of June and once we have adjourned, then if the President calls for a special session, we would have complied with the provision of the Constitution particularly Section 23, paragraph 2," he said.
"Because if we pass this during this session or before the break, then the emergency powers granted to the President shall cease to exist upon adjournment. So, hanggang June 5 lang mae-exercise ng Presidente so sayang naman," he added.
The members of the Senate suspended the session and held a caucus.
"To avoid any Constitutional challenge, then we remove any provisions which might be interpreted as a term emergency or in substance would be emergency in character... And to also look at the date of effectivity," Angara said after the session resumed, citing Drilon's recommendation. — BM, GMA News