Lagman questions legality of House ‘virtual’ session
MANILA, Philippines — An opposition lawmaker has challenged the legality of the actions of the House of Representatives in granting special powers to President Rodrigo Duterte to deal with the coronavirus crisis, saying its enactment of the bill violated the chamber’s own rules.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the nine lawmakers who voted against House Bill No. 6616 on Monday night, questioned the holding of a “virtual plenary session” at the House, in which only 20 members were physically present while the rest took part through digital teleconferencing apps.
During the session, which lasted until early Tuesday morning, the House approved the bill on third reading by a 284-9 vote with no abstention, but later adopted the Senate version, which the two chambers eventually ratified.
But Lagman called the House session a “sham,” recalling that Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano announced that there was a quorum without a roll call and “with a declaration that practically all members are purportedly on ‘official business’ in their respective constituencies.”
This was so the House could consider them “present” but “without the right to vote in absentia,” according to Lagman.
In the Senate, a quorum was declared with only 12 members present.
Lagman said the new system of virtual plenary session and distance electronic voting was not legal because the innovation was not validly effected by an amendment as required under House rules.
“The suspension or amendment of the Rules of the House was not even formally moved, requested or required. Consequently, House Bill No. 6616 was invalidly ‘passed,’” he said.
He maintained that the President did not need any special powers to respond to the coronavirus crisis “because there are adequate response funds in the 2020 GAA (General Appropriations Act).”
These include the President’s own P13-billion contingency fund, “which is barely touched,” he said.
No need for realignment
Lagman said the executive could tap available funds without need for realignment.
“Under the general provisions of the GAA (Section 66), the President is already authorized to use legitimate savings in the executive department and to augment deficient appropriations from such savings,” he said.
“In fact, the bill does not even include a supplemental budget [or] an economic stimulus package,” Lagman said.
He argued that in other countries with coronavirus infections, “no national parliament has granted its president or prime minister additional emergency powers to fight the pandemic, and no other president or prime minister” has asked for special powers to halt the spread of the virus.
“What is needed is a well-prepared supplemental budget, which must be adopted after the resumption of sessions starting May 4, 2020,” Lagman said.
Magdalo Rep. Manuel Cabochan III, who also voted against the House bill, said it was wrong to concentrate power in the President.
“By approving this bill, we, the Congress, are effectively passing all the work and conferring all the powers to the President as if making him a lone savior” of the nation.
The crisis, he said, could not be solved by a legislative measure giving blanket powers to the President. Solving it, he said, would require a whole-of-government approach.
Other branches and agencies of government, he said, had roles and powers to help tackle the crisis. “We should recognize and make use of all these arms of government to serve the Filipino people,” he said.
No action plan
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, who also voted against the House bill, said it did not make sense for the executive to be asking for more funds when it had not yet offered any concrete or comprehensive plan to fight the coronavirus.
“The people should see and learn about what their government is planning for them, and how it intends to spend taxpayer money,” Zarate said.
Legal experts expressed reservations about the legality of the Senate version of the bill that the House adopted to expedite enactment of special powers law.
In a legal opinion, the Free Legal Assistance Group said parts of the bill that give President Duterte powers that should be exclusive to Congress were unconstitutional.The group said the powers to allocate public funds and determine the objectives for spending were legislative, and granting such powers to the President would violate the separation of powers.
Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, said the provision in the Senate bill that gives Mr. Duterte broad rule-making power was “blatantly unconstitutional,” as it sets no limits to the President’s exercise of that power.
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said there should be safeguards to prevent abuse of the special powers.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines opposed the grant of special powers to Mr. Duterte.
What is needed to deal with the crisis, it said, is a “swift medical response” to specific problems brought about by the pandemic.
—With reports from Patricia Denise M. Chiu and Tina G. Santos
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.