Malacañang asks Congress to grant Duterte more powers to combat COVID-19

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 22) — Malacañang is asking Congress to declare a national emergency and grant President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers, including the power to take over public utilities, hospitals and businesses.

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III confirmed Sunday to CNN Philippines that he has received a draft bill from Malacañang asking for the declaration and special powers for Duterte.

“Proposal ng executive department 'yun na was not fully discussed yesterday [during our meeting,] therefore, nothing is written in stone,” Sotto told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: That is the executive department’s proposal which was not fully discussed yesterday during our meeting, therefore, nothing is written in stone.]

He added that senators will file their own versions of the measure and that the draft bill from Malacañang was only sent to them for their comments.

Sotto, however, is not keen on calling the additional powers which the Malacañang bill seeks to grant as “emergency powers,” even saying that a provision which allows “in extreme emergencies to take over private hospitals and businesses” is “questionable.”

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo also said Malacañang is not asking for emergency powers, but for “powers necessary to carry our urgent measures to implement the national emergency.”

A similar bill in the House of Representatives, which Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Joey Salceda said he will co-author, seeks to allow Duterte to temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest to be used in the government’s response to COVID-19.

The proposal also wants to allow Duterte to realign funding in the 2020 budget and to allocate cash, funds and investments of government corporations or agencies for the government’s COVID-19 response.

It also seeks to give Duterte the power to buy essential goods and services like medical supplies, rented venues to be used as quarantine centers, subject to restrictions imposed by the procurement law.

On top of this, the proposed law also seeks to allow Duterte to regulate the operation of public and private transportation, traffic on all roads and thoroughfares, and the country’s energy supply.

Under Salceda’s proposal, Duterte’s additional powers will be effective for two months or until the end of the state of calamity. Duterte placed the Philippines under a state of calamity for six months on March 16.

Congress is set to meet on Monday at 10 a.m. for a special session to grant Duterte the power to shuffle state funds for the government’s COVID-19 response.

Sotto earlier said funds to be realigned for the government’s response to the pandemic could be around ₱200 billion.

Siyempre, nung ginawa ‘yung budget, ay hindi naman natin sukat akalain na magkakaroon ng COVID-19 pandemic dito sa ating bansa. So the rules have changed. ‘Yung budget natin ngayon does not reflect the needs of our people in terms of combatting COVID-19,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: When the budget was crafted, we didn't know that there would be a COVID-19 pandemic in the country. So the rules have changed. Our budget now does not reflect the needs of our people in terms of combatting COVID-19.]

Congress has been on a break since March 13 and will reopen May 4.

The Health Department has reported 380 cases of COVID-19 of the Philippines, with 25 of them turning fatal. Fifteen of those who have contracted the disease, caused by the SARS CoV-2 virus, have recovered.

To contain the spread of the disease, Duterte has placed the entirety of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine, restricting people's movement.

CNN Philippines Correspondents Xianne Arcangel, Joyce Ilas and Tricia Terada contributed to this report.