Congress to go on break with stimulus in limbo, anti-terrorism bill prioritized
“We wish to announce that Malacañang will not certify as urgent the extension of the Bayanihan We Heal as One Act, for now,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
Joven Cagande, file

Congress to go on break with stimulus in limbo, anti-terrorism bill prioritized

Prinz Magtulis (Philstar.com) - June 4, 2020 - 7:10pm

MANILA, Philippines — Legislators are starting their 50 day-long break on Friday with their priorities put into question after a Congress dominated by President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill, while leaving much-needed economic stimulus in limbo.

A key difference among the bills is a certification from Duterte that the measures need to be enacted quickly. While Duterte certified House Bill 6875 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 urgent, Senate Bill 1564 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act was not, preventing senators to pass the bill on their last session day.

Duterte’s order was critical. By telling lawmakers that HB 6875 is needed urgently, the Lower House dispensed of the bill’s second and third readings in two succeeding days, instead of waiting for three days after the second reading to pass it. As of this posting, the Senate has adjourned its session, while the Lower House is still deliberating on some bills.

Senators already passed a counterpart bill for HB 6875, but since June 3, they were waiting for the same certification for another measure, SB 1564. However, it appeared the Palace has no intention to press for the measure, at least for now.

“We wish to announce that Malacañang will not certify as urgent the extension of the Bayanihan We Heal as One Act, for now,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.

For critics, the differing fates of the bills just lay further evidence on the Duterte administration’s supposedly skewed priorities during a pandemic. On Thursday, various civic groups went out wearing masks to protest the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which now just awaits Duterte’s signature to get enacted into law.

In social media, #JunkTerrorBill has been trending in the Philippines since Wednesday, with celebrities, government officials, and people from the academe expressing concern over the bill’s broad definition of “terrorism” that they say would be prone to abuse. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said the bill may be questioned before the high court as soon as it is passed.

Supporters of the bill, including the Philippine National Police, said the measure has sufficient safeguards to protect freedom of expression.

Unclear direction

As for the Bayanihan We Recover as One, the direction of the government remains unclear. What is clear however is that the bill is crucial so that state agencies can move around funds in the national budget without violating the Constitution. That power was already granted through Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act but the law is poised to expire by June 5 without a new measure. 

Without a prevailing law, the government cannot shift budget funds from one department to another, or one program to another, a scenario that would hamper funding COVID-19 response programs since the existing outlay was crafted before the outbreak struck and therefore did not contain specific funding to deal with the health crisis.

Through RA 11469, the government was able to funnel P353.86 billion in funding to various programs meant to fight COVID-19, including cash aid for the poor, displaced workers, farmers, as well as loan assistance to enterprises. 

An option for Duterte is to call on Congress to convene a special session to pass Bayanihan II, as well as the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE)— two preferred stimulus measures of the government. Finance Assistant Secretary Ma. Teresa Habitan confirmed by phone early Thursday that a request for special session is an option. But other finance officials as well as Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua did not respond for further comments on their plans. 

At the Palace, Roque also did not respond to queries as of this posting.

Dwindling budget space

But the need for the law is rising by the day. As it is, Budget Undersecretary Laura Pascua said the budget space is already “very limited’ even with the president’s emergency powers in place. Without it, more budget problems could ensue. 

Meanwhile, contrary to the Executive-backed Bayanihan and CREATE bills, the Lower House passed on final reading the P1.3-trillion HB 6815 or the Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy on Thursday. The bill will now go to the Senate for deliberations.

Congress opens a new session with Duterte's State of the Nation Address on July 26.

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