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Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte holds a meeting with his Cabinet to discuss updates on the novel coronavirus disease at the Presidential Security Group Compound at Malacañang Park on March 24, 2020.
Presidential photo/Toto Lozano

Duterte emergency powers intact despite Congress on break

Prinz Magtulis (Philstar.com) - June 6, 2020 - 6:22pm

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte’s emergency powers to address the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic remain in effect, a position Malacañang has taken despite a constitutional provision that stipulates such powers stop existing as soon as Congress ends its session.

As far as Republic 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act is concerned, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told Philstar.com on Saturday the government “adheres to the view that the sunset clause prevails.”

Roque was pertaining to Section 9 of the law which stated that the measure “shall be in full force and effect only for three months, unless extended by Congress.” Since the law was enacted on March 24, but was not published until the day after, Roque said the law is “effective until June 25.”

The sunset provision of RA 11469, however, appears to run counter to Article VI, Section 23 of the Constitution that stipulated that “in times of war or other national emergency,” legislators may grant the president powers which “shall cease upon the next adjournment of Congress.” Lawmakers concluded their first regular session last Friday. 

Lawyer Antonio La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, believes at least the law’s “criminal provisions which are strictly interpreted” should no longer be in effect. He did not elaborate.

La Viña was pertaining to RA 11469’s penalty provisions, including a controversial stipulation that charges and jails individuals or groups “perpetrating or spreading false information regarding COVID-19.” The provision has been used by the police during the early days of the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon to run after social media users critical of the government’s pandemic response. 

Critics said the provision had been abused by authorities to stifle freedom of expression and to run after people critical of the Duterte administration. The Department of Justice, which oversees the National Bureau of Investigation, has denied such claims.

Sought for his position on whether the Bayanihan Act remains in effect, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra indicated that the constitutional provision laying out the expiration of the emergency powers “is capable of being interpreted in more than one way.”

“Generally speaking, when a constitutional or statutory provision is capable of being interpreted in more than one way, It is the interpretation that logically breathes life to the intent of the law and serves it purpose that should prevail,” Guevarra said in a text message.

Budget powers

That the Palace believes Duterte still wields his emergency powers is crucial on other matters. For one, RA 11469 allows the Executive department to move budget funds from one agency or one program to another on its own, without the need for Congress approval. The powers were requested as legal cover as the government tries to search for funding for its COVID-19 response.

As of May 29, nearly P354 billion in funds were shifted to finance programs meant to counter the pandemic’s impact. Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said in a text message his department would continue on reallocating budgets until the law is expired. 

On top of budgetary powers, Duterte is also allowed under the Bayanihan Act to “direct the operation” of private hospitals and medical facilities, as well as other establishments, needed to assist on the government’s handling of the pandemic. That said, this provision, opposed by businesses, has so far not been enforced. 

The government had requested Congress, through another bill, to extend Duterte’s additional powers by another three months or until September 2019. The bill, however, failed to pass before lawmakers went on a break that will run until July 26. It remains unclear whether Duterte will call Congress to a special session to pass the measure.

BAYANIHAN TO HEAL AS ONE ACT
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