Lawmakers eye granting Duterte power to realign funds to fight COVID-19

HOUSE Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez on Sunday called on his colleagues to rally behind the swift passage of a legislation that would address the coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) pandemic in this Monday morning’s special session where only 20 lawmakers are expected to be physically present as part of social distancing.

“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 services especially our doctors, nurses and all medical personnel. We will provide enough logistics to help President Duterte ensure that millions of Filipinos now under enhanced community quarantine are fed and afforded with other supplies needed in these difficult times,” said Romualdez, who chairs the powerful House Committee on Rules.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio “Pidi” Barzaga Jr., president of the National Unity Party (NUP), said the special session will be a historic one with the expected first time use of text messaging and online video conferencing to temporarily replace floor deliberations due to the COVID-19 scare.

“If a House member questions that before the Supreme Court, I don’t think it will prosper,” said Barzaga.

Romualdez appealed to his colleagues both from the majority and the minority “to participate actively in the deliberations, whether in the session hall or though teleconference.”

“Due to urgency of the situation, we urge our fellow House Members to observe the time limit to be imposed by the rules committee for the floor deliberation,” said Romualdez.

As much as possible, we intend to wrap up the deliberation and approve the measures proposed by the Executive Department within the day. Time is of the essence. We need to act swiftly. The survival of our families, and of the nation is at stake,” said Romualdez.

Responding to Romualdez, House Deputy Majority Leader and Bagong Henerasyon (BH) party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera supported the special session called to pass a supplemental budget in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects.

Herrera also joins the call of business groups for government to adopt a "fiscal stimulus program" which includes: additional funds for conditional cash transfer recipients; additional funds to support workers; other measures to transfer funds or food to low-income families; additional funds for temporary hospitals and quarantine areas; funds to support businesses; targeted subsidies to health, tourism and transport industries; increased public investment spending; and, deferment of penalties related to interest payments.

Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte said the limited presence of lawmakers “is in line with health and safety protocols during this 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 (IATF).

“We should be an example to our people that while we continue to work we as members of Congress will strictly follow safety and health protocols,” said Villafuerte.

“If we do the normal session we will not be able to fit in the plenary as per social distancing guidelines. Also imagine 200 congressmen attending. They will be bringing with them a staff, driver and security etcetera plus staff of the House of Representatives. There will easily be at least over a thousand people exposed and risking contamination in the House. Also imagine over 200 congressmen passing through checkpoints and borders just so they can attend the session in Quezon City,” said Villafuerte.

“We would rather have our security personnel and frontliners focus on more important tasks than be worrying about passage of the members of Congress. Lastly, most congressmen are in their various districts all over the country. Since land, air, sea travel and public transportation is suspended it will be very difficult to require physical presence of members to attend. Thus we are using digital technology to do online/digital session which will be the first time in history that will be done,” said Villafuerte.

Herrera also said there should be more fund allocation for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to borrow for capitalization.

"More than 99 percent of the total number of establishments in the country are MSMEs. They account for more than 60 percent of jobs in the country. That's why it is crucial for the government to extend more assistance to this sector," Herrera said.

She noted that there should also be tax breaks for MSMEs so that their savings from tax breaks may be used as capital to revitalize their businesses and to avoid laying off of employees.

"We should also open and liberalize the stock market, and make it more accessible for SMEs," she said.

Herrera added that there should be moratorium on credit card payments and bank loans for a period of six months to allow MSMEs to normalize their operations and save enough to start paying their loans.

The lawmaker said the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) could further reduce interest rates to enhance liquidity.

"While we combat the spread of COVID-19, it is imperative for Congress to pass measures that would effectively address the economic impact of the pandemic and ease the burdens of the Filipino people," Herrera said.