Duterte signs law granting himself special powers to address coronavirus outbreak

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte signed on Wednesday, March 25, the bill that grants him 30 special powers to address the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines. 

Duterte's former aide and now Senator Bong Go confirmed this in a message to reporters.

Duterte signed the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act of 2020 past midnight of Wednesday – a day after Congress passed the bill, a result of a special session that ran from Monday morning until past 3 am Tuesday. A copy has yet to be released to media.

The law was parsed through by lawmakers, who removed unconstitutional budgetary provisions and controversial provisions on the takeover of businesses. The earlier version of the bill had proposed to grant Duterte emergency powers.

Provisions that would have given the President authority to extend his special powers were also deleted. 

The law declares a state of national emergency, which comes on top of a month-long Luzon-wide lockdown, and earlier declarations of a state of calamity and  a state of public health emergency in the country. 

What are Duterte’s special powers? Based on a final version of the measure passed by the Senate and adopted by the House of Representatives, Duterte is allowed 30 powers.

Among the items listed in the law is the authority to give 18 million low-income families P5,000 to P8,000 in emergency cash aid, depending on the prevailing minimum wage in the region.

The measure also ensures that health workers get a special risk allowance on top of their regular hazard pay. It also directs the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) to shoulder all medical costs of workers exposed to the coronavirus during the duration of the emergency.  

The law also mandates that P100,000 be given to public and private health workers who contract severe coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Families of health workers who died of COVID-19 in the line of duty will receive P1 million, effective retroactively. 

The powers outlined in the Bayanihan Heal as One Act are based on Article VI, Section 23 (2), of the Constitution. This provision allows Congress "in times of war or other national emergency" to pass a law authorizing the President “to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out a declared national policy."

The law grants Duterte the power to take over private medical facilities and public transportation. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea earlier said the provision was merely to provide Duterte a "standby power." 

This was based on Section 17 of Article XII of the Constitution, which allows the State "during the emergency and under reasonable terms prescribed by it, [to] temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately owned public utility or business affected with public interest."

Budgetary concerns: The law also grants Duterte the power to discontinue appropriated programs or activities of any agency of the executive branch, including government-owned and controlled corporations. Savings will be prioritized for the following:  

The measure allows the lifting of the 30% cap on amounts appropriated for the Quick Response Fund. 

This is in stark contrast to an earlier version of the measure, which had no breakdown of some P257 billion to be tapped to respond to the outbreak. 

Is this necessary? Several lawyers criticized the measure for being “superfluous.” Duterte, they insisted, did not need these special powers, as existing laws already vested  the executive branch such powers. 

In particular, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said, Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act already gives Duterte powers to respond to a pandemic.  

Several lawmakers echoed this, saying the measure did not address the root cause of the health crisis seen in the Duterte government’s lack of a comprehensive plan against the outbreak.

Duterte has to report to Congress: The law requires Duterte to submit to Congress weekly reports on the utilization and realignment of funds related to the measure.

Meanwhile, those who violate the law may face imprisonment of up to two months or a fine of not less than P10,000 but not more than P1 million. Among possible violations include LGUs which do not follow national policies; private health facility owners who do not comply with the order; hoarders; and individuals or groups found to be "creating, perpetuating, and spreading false news" online and on other platforms.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act will be valid for 3 months unless extended by Congress or terminated earlier through a concurrent resolution or a presidential proclamation.

As of Tuesday, the Philippines has recorded at least 552 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 19 recoveries, and 35 deaths. – Rappler.com 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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