Generous ‘epal-iticos’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2021 - 12:00am

Legislators in both chambers of the 18th Congress are still enjoying their prolonged session recess. Although Congress is adjourned, it certainly do not stop the lawmakers from the Senate and at the House of Representatives to conduct their respective committee public hearings and to hold meetings of technical working groups. Obviously, however, many of them remain actively engaged in high-profile activities inside and outside the halls of Congress.

The legislative branch of the government went into extended Holy Week recess since last March 26. Sessions will resume starting this May 17. When they get back to work again, the lawmakers are actually winding down their second regular sessions ending this June 4.

The third and last regular sessions of this 18th Congress will end together with that of President Rodrigo Duterte on June 30, 2022. In fact, President Duterte will deliver his last and final state of the nation address (SONA) at the traditional joint opening sessions of the two chambers this July 26.

When the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in our country hit us in March last year, Congress adapted with the required adoption of minimum health protocols. The leaderships in both chambers have adopted what they describe as “hybrid” conduct of sessions. The Senate and House rules were amended to combine the limited number of lawmakers physically present at session hall while the rest of the membership stay online to constitute a quorum. Thus, the wide media exposure of lawmakers have likewise considerably been impaired.

So like most politicians, it is like depriving the lawmakers the oxygen they need. This is not because they have contracted COVID-19 infection but because most of them thrive best when there are sessions of Congress.

This early, the opposition ranks in the 18th Congress have been gearing up to lock horns with the outgoing Duterte administration, perhaps with more intensity. Without a doubt, it has been intensified already by the upcoming presidential and local elections taking place in May, 2022 yet.

Hence, the re-emergence of the so-called epal-iticos.

For starters, the opposition stalwarts in Congress want to scrutinize how the public funds from two special laws they approved last year have been used by the national government to control the spread of the COVID-19 contagion. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they are going to undertake such fine-toothed combing the funds used for the nation’s interest.

These two laws they approved one after the other were, namely: Republic Act (RA) 11469: To Heal As One Act, or Bayanihan-1 for short; and RA 11494: To Recover As One Act, or the Bayanihan-2. President Duterte signed Bayanihan-1 on March 24, 2020 and lapsed on June 24, 2020 while Bayanihan-2 was subsequently signed into law on Sept. 11. As authorized by Congress, the President was able to realign as much as P220 billion of the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) under Bayanihan-1 while another P140 billion were realigned for Bayanihan-2 to finance anti-COVID intervention expenditures.

Re-electionist Senator Risa Hontiveros filed last Monday a Resolution calling upon the Commission on Audit (COA) to review how much and where these financial packages were spent for anti-COVID interventions of the national government.The Senator specifically asked COA to submit its findings before Congress begins its deliberations this year on the proposed 2022 national budget bill.

Among other emergency powers granted by Congress to President Duterte to address the impact of COVID-19 pandemic was to implement emergency cash subsidy called as Social Amelioration Program (SAP). Now popularly called as “ayuda,” it has become a veritable source of welfare aids for millions of Filipino families economically displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hontiveros cited figures reportedly from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) that as much as P570 billion had been used from Bayanihan-1 and 2. However, she deplored, many Filipino health care workers have yet to receive their hazard pay, many families have not yet received any cash subsidy assistance, and anti-COVID medical facilities are still lacking.

The twin laws required the Office of the President to submit a monthly report to Congress and to COA. But Hontiveros claimed the last report she saw submitted by Malacanang was in January. However, the two laws also created an eight-man Joint Congressional Oversight Committee. With such safeguards in place under Bayanihan 1 and 2, how come Hontiveros and the rest of the opposition members seemed to be left out?

The Bayanihan-1 was supposed to give 18 million low-income families amounts ranging from P5,000 to P8,000 from SAP – depending on the prevailing minimum wage in the region – for two months. It also allocated funds to give health workers a special risk allowance on top of their regular hazard pay; and, public and private health workers who contracted COVID-19 infection will be given P100,000, and P1 million for the families of health workers who succumbed to the virus while in the line of duty.

Now, here comes the Bayanihan-3 bill that proposes such staggering amount of P405.6 billion worth of ayuda package.

Three House committees have reportedly approved the proposed Bayanihan-3 economic stimulus bill, which among other things, targets to give cash “ayuda” to each of 110 million Filipinos. Whether rich or poor but all impacted by this pandemic, Bayanihan-3 bill seeks to grant a first tranche of the “ayuda” of P1,000 cash aid for each citizen.This though still has to go through first to plenary for floor debate and the approval of a majority of the 300 or so House members. Not to mention, this must have a counterpart bill at the Senate, unless they adopt the House bill en toto.

Not to be un-Christian about aid-giving, these very generous epal-iticos behind them are blatantly posturing this early for next year’s elections. They charge to us taxpaying population their generosity as the bill’s source of funding.

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