‘Governance survival’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - July 10, 2020 - 12:00am

There are barely two weeks before the 18th Congress convene their second regular sessions. Exactly on July 27, the Senate and the House of Representatives will begin their sessions while the country remains under a public health crisis due to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. By tradition, the ceremonial joint opening sessions will be highlighted by state of the nation address (SONA) of the President at the Batasan Pambansa in Quezon City.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque earlier announced Malacanang is preparing for a possible “blended” type of SONA delivery for President Duterte whose physical presence in the august halls of Congress may not be required given the COVID-19 pandemic. Roque cited there is nothing in the country’s Constitution that required Congress as the specific place where the Chief Executive must deliver the SONA.

Given the proximity of SONA day, Senate president Vicente Sotto III believes it would not be advisable for President Rodrigo Duterte to call for special sessions of Congress to pass into law the Bayanihan-2 as urgent administration priority bill. This is the pending bill to extend the Bayanihan Act Heal As One, or the COVID-19 emergency powers granted to President Duterte that lapsed last June 25.

As co-equal bodies of the Executive Department, Sotto pointed out, the legislature is mandated by the same Constitution to convene their sessions at their respective venues of work. For the Senators, they have a building in Pasay City for the Upper Chamber while House members hold their sessions at the Batasan Pambansa.

Sotto, however, invoked the COVID-19 pandemic as a continuing public health emergency when they adapted virtual tele-conferencing of their sessions. The ensuing lockdowns all over the country started last March 15 when COVID-19 pandemic struck while the 18th Congress were in the middle of the first regular sessions.

By way of teasing the Senate chief, I reminded him lawmakers usually go on foreign travel junkets when Congress adjourns their sessions. President Duterte has already approved the lifting of the suspension of “non-essential” travels for abroad following the easing of lockdowns in Metro Manila and other parts of the country.

In fairness though, the Senate president and the House Speaker are really bound by international obligation to send delegates to attend the annual Inter-Parliamentarians Union (IPU) usually held in European countries and other official meetings being held abroad involving leaders and members of Congress. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Sotto told us, they had “Quintet Virtual Meeting” last June 30 hosted by the incumbent IPU president, Senator Gabriela Cuevas-Barron of Mexico. Sotto was invited as the chairman of the Asia-Pacific Group Council of the IPU.

The Senate chief sought to dispel public impression though on foreign travel junkets by lawmakers whenever they adjourn sessions. In fact, Sotto credited his fellow Senators – and even at the Lower House – are conducting public hearings on bills pending at various committee levels even if the 18th Congress is on recess.

Thus, Sotto believes, these pending bills like “Bayanihan-2 Recover As One” will finally get through the legislative mills faster once second regular sessions start two weeks from now. Although these bills are on fast-track mode, Sotto is still looking forward to the legislative priority bills that President Duterte will spell out in his penultimate SONA.

On SONA day, the Senate chief disclosed, they are looking at the possibility that at least 12 – or more – of the 24 Senators would be physically present at the session hall on their opening day. This is because of the physical distancing required amid COVID-19 contagion while the other Senators may just opt to attend “virtually” on SONA day. In the case of the Lower House, Sotto noted, they also have been conducting “virtual” sessions like they were doing at present. So they can do the same set-up, he suggested, while President Duterte can deliver his “virtual” SONA at Malacanang.

Or, the other option that Roque likewise raised is for a certain number of Senate and House leaders would be invited to join as the President’s live audience on SONA day at Malacanang. As of last Wednesday when we had the Kapihan sa Manila Bay Webinar, Sotto told us, the legislative liaison officers of Malacanang have yet to coordinate with the leaders of Congress on how President Duterte would deliver the SONA.

During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Webinar, Sotto also sought to dismiss apparent mis-informed commentaries on reports that he and other government officials undergo rapid testing for COVID-19 repeatedly while many Filipinos could not even get tested. Testing for COVID-19 infection can be done either with rapid blood test, or by swabbing under the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).

By its name, you can get immediate results from the rapid blood test in a matter of 15 minutes or so. The RT-PCR – which is regarded as the “gold standard” for COVID testing – may take longer period of time because results come out two to three days after.

Whether he likes it or not, Sotto explained, he has to go through the COVID test more than regularly. As the Senate president, he cited, he is one of the top four highest elected officials of the land identified by our Constitution in the line of succession. By hierarchy, the Vice President, Senate president or, in case of his inability, the House Speaker to succeed in case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of the President.

“It is called governance survival, the top four officials must be healthy,” Senate president Sotto cited.

Sotto, who turns 72 years old next month, belongs to the age group considered most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. The Senate has already 16 COVID cases, mostly staff of several Senators and sadly one dead. At the House, they had 12 COVID cases with one dead, too.

For the sake of “governance survival” and transparency, Roque should also make public COVID cases at Malacanang.

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