NO less than President Rodrigo Duterte himself has painted Sen. Mary Grace Poe like the evil witch who stands in the way of finding a solution to the traffic problem. Indeed, our traffic situation has become a living nightmare. To label it “killer traffic” is so apropos. People are dying in ambulances stuck in the middle of traffic, one that is so bad that we are ranked seventh in the world with the worst gridlock and first in Southeast Asia.
This is precisely why it is easy to understand the popular demand that emergency powers be granted to the President to address the traffic situation, something that Senator Poe has resisted. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Services, she is in the position to make that demand breeze through the Senate for approval, or to subject it to painful scrutiny. And she has obviously opted for the latter. This is precisely why it is also easy to understand the vitriol being heaped on Poe, to a point that Malacañang has vowed to make her pay in future reelection bids.
And yet, Senator Poe has a point, one that is lost as people, so fed up with the traffic mess, now easily fall for the myth that granting emergency powers to the President would magically make our traffic woes disappear.
When Senator Poe asked Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade for what purpose the emergency powers would be needed, he pointed to procurement and acquisition of right of way, or ROW, which at present is always threatened by court injunctions.
However, and which was rightfully cited by Poe, there are already existing laws enabling an easier process for procurement and acquisition of ROW. Republic Act (RA) 9184 provides Tugade’s department with several options that do not require exemption from the Government Procurement Board, and which would shorten the period to three to six months. This was also further mandated by the President through an executive order.
There is also RA 10752, which sets the negotiated sale toward the acquisition of ROW to just 30 days. And if this is not met, the issuance of a writ of possession is now mandated after seven days that a deposit is made. The Supreme Court, through the Office of the Court Administrator, has issued a circular to all lower courts directing their compliance, and to quickly dispose of adverse petitions and issue the necessary orders to enable and facilitate the acquisition of ROWs. Thus, nothing is stopping the Executive Branch from filing administrative cases against trial court judges who do not heed the circular and cause undue delay in the process.
In short, there are already legal remedies to address the difficulties encountered in the procurement process and in the acquisition of ROW even without granting emergency powers to the President.
The Constitution sets out the three instances for the granting of extraordinary powers to the president. These include the calling out of the armed forces, the declaration of martial law and the suspension of the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus. However, in all these instances, the conditions to warrant their invocation and the limitations are clearly defined. Senator Poe is therefore right in insisting on a clearly defined master plan that will delimit the domains within which the emergency powers granted can be lawfully exercised.
Allies of the President would like us to trust him on this issue. However, and as shown in the controversy in the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), the President is not the entire bureaucracy. What we have is an amalgamation and a labyrinth within which, no matter how hard we try, there will always be points of weakness. The President even appointed one of his most trusted preferati to head BuCor in the person of Nicanor Faeldon, and yet corruption and ineptitude persisted.
What is required is for the executive branch to present a clear master plan to address the worsening traffic situation. It must contain an enumeration of the policies, projects and activities that it plans to implement, including the present constraints for each that would require the granting of emergency powers to the President since the prevailing system of laws and procedures are problematic, or are not enough. All this requires complete staff work, or CSW, that would dissect the component activities to identify bottlenecks and roadblocks beyond issues on procurement and acquisition of ROW.
The reason why caution and prudence must be exercised in granting emergency powers is precisely because it is an extreme measure. Without a master plan to fall back on, we may end up with a hit-and-miss process of looking for a solution. What we must always be mindful of is the risk of government overreach that may encroach on the rights of persons, and of the fact that without a clearly defined plan, there is also the risk of the powers being corrupted and abused.
The President is already more than halfway toward the end of his term, and it is simply beyond comprehension why such a master plan has not been developed yet. Instead, what we have are trial-and-error, experimental solutions like the provincial bus ban in EDSA, or turning it into a one-way traffic artery. There was even a proposal to have a coding based on the manufacturer of the vehicle. And Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo even advised people to use helicopters instead of ambulances to transport emergency patients.
It is in this regard that it is quite discomfiting that there is a demand to give the President carte blanche emergency powers, only to have a taste of the initial salvo of ideas which his people are planning to implement. We are being offered a hodgepodge of policy experiments without any parent master plan. With these kinds of ideas, a grant of emergency powers may not be all that comforting. It can even be frightening.