MANILA, Philippines – Senator Risa Hontiveros slammed handing "unnecessary powers" to President Rodrigo Duterte, after Congress approved the measure that gave him at least 30 special powers to deal with the pandemic.
"We have handed unnecessary powers when he has not shown good faith in using even the ordinary powers [Duterte has] in an efficient, democratic way," Hontiveros said in a Rappler Talk interview.
The Bayanihan to Heal as One law was passed in record time, as Congress held marathon special sessions on Monday, March 23. Hontiveros was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate
The law would give the President the "power" to add funding to existing programs in the executive department – a power that he already had in the 2019 and 2020 general appropriations laws. (READ: Congress reins in Duterte's special budget powers)
"Ang punto ko ay pwedeng abusuhin ang pag-allocate ng mga pondo sa mga programa. Pa'no natin masisiguro na mapupunta talaga sa taumbayan?" Hontiveros said. (My point is that the power to allocate funds can be abused. How can we ensure that this will really go to the public?)
“This bill asks us to trust government a lot. Now how can we trust government or an administration that wanted to give P14 billion to tourism while our doctors still didn’t even have enough personal protective equipment?” she added.
Hontiveros argued that the powers listed in the recently signed measure were already covered in existing laws.
“Tingin ko, hindi naman talaga kailangan ng emergency powers sa pag-secure ng pondo, para sa mga panawagan ng publiko natin ng tulong laban sa COVID-19. (In my opinion, emergency powers are not needed to secure funds and address the public’s calls for help in fighting COVID-19.) Our current laws and mechanisms already provide that,” Hontiveros said.
“Hindi naman kasi emergency powers ang kailangan o sagot sa pandemic, kundi political will,” she added. (What we need in order to address this pandemic is not emergency powers, but political will.)
According to the Senator, this includes the political will to conduct mass testing; to provide adequate personal protective equipment or PPE and hazard pay to frontliners; and to provide cash assistance to poor families.
She also cautioned against Congress' handing its power of the purse to the President.
"Did we let the President share Congress' power in exchange for some good anti-COVID-19 measures na pwede naman na nating gawin (that can be done) under current laws and programs and even existing funds?" Hontiveros said.
"The legislative was willing to give the executive a supplemantal budget. Bakit hindi na lang 'yun ang pinasa namin? (Why didn't we just pass that?)" she added.
Hontiveros also lamented the government’s lack of strategy in dealing with the health crisis.
“Lately we have more of a sense of urgency, but we can’t act on this like putting out small fires around a big forest fire,” she said. “Kailangan meron talaga tayong malakihang (we need to have a greater) strategy and within that, we identify the fire-fighting measures, and we put the resources behind those.”
The Akbayan senator acknowledged that her colleagues at the Senate "worked long and hard" to introduce a number of amendments to the Malacañang bill that was initially unconstitutional. (READ: Heal as one? Why Duterte's special budget powers bill may be unconstitutional)
"We have this law although it's not the best and the major tool that we need. Let’s prevent it from being turned into a sledgehammer. Let’s make it as useful as possible by making sure that the good stuff in it is implemented well," the senator said.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the special powers law Wednesday and it will take effect after publication on a newspaper or the Official Gazette It will be effective for 3 months, unless extended by the Congress.
Under the bill, Duterte would have to implement items on health worker compensation and special hazard pay, some P5,000 to P8,000 cash aid to 18 million low-income households, and an expanded Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program to include informal sector workers affected by the Luzon lockdown.
As of Wednesday, the Philippines has 636 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with 38 deaths and 26 recoveries.
Worldwide, over 19,000 people have died due to the disease while more than 404,000 people have been infected across 175 countries. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com