Last week marked the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. That solemn occasion was marked by carefully scripted shows of bipartisan unity, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers honoring those who made great sacrifices on that day and in the years since, including the victims of 9/11, those who responded to the attacks, and soldiers and veterans of the subsequent war on terror.
What I find pathetic, however, is the hypocrisy of so many of these politicians. Despite lauding the heroic efforts of first responders — policemen, firemen and EMTs, many of whom lost their lives — for years these same politicians opposed the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
That Act, which finally became law in early 2011, created a federally funded program to provide aid and support for those who suffer from health problems in the wake of the attacks. For example, many who lived or worked near the World Trade Center now suffer from extremely high rates of respiratory disorders like asthma or sarcoidosis. Under the Zadroga Act, testing and treatment for ailments like these is provided free of charge to first responders and survivors of the terror attacks. Currently, about 40,000 people are being monitored and 20,000 are receiving medical treatment for 9/11-related illnesses.
Certain types of cancer are also more common among first responders, reconstruction workers, and those who live in lower Manhattan. Cancer was originally excluded from the list of conditions covered by the Zadroga Act, but last week the federal government added 50 different types of cancer to the list of medical conditions covered. This change comes a little late for the estimated 400 people who have already died from 9/11-related cancers, but is nevertheless welcomed by those survivors who are currently struggling with the physical, psychological and financial burdens of cancer treatment.
Unlike so many of the bills passed by Congress in the last few years, the Zadroga Act is a good thing. Providing medical care and treatment for the heroes and survivors of 9/11 is the right thing to do. That’s why the past and present actions of many of our politicians are downright offensive.
Many prominent Congressmen opposed passage of the Zadroga Act. For example, Representative Eric Cantor, Majority Leader in the House, voted against the Act three times. So did Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Current Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan voted against the Act twice before skipping the final vote, as did House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. What was their primary reason for opposing the Act? Namely, that the bill would create a new entitlement program and we simply cannot afford it in an era of record deficits.
This seems an odd argument, given the cost of the Zadroga Act is offset by increased visa fees and excise taxes. The bulk of funding for the Act comes from a new 2 percent tax levied against foreign companies that work on federally funded projects but whose home governments bar American firms from similar contracts overseas. Given this dedicated funding stream, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Act would actually net the US government nearly $500 million over ten years. Although the recent addition of cancer to the list of diseases covered may change this calculus somewhat, the Zadroga Act is nevertheless revenue neutral.
Moreover, the budget-sequester legislation that Congress passed with broad bipartisan support last summer as part of the Budget Control Act now threatens the very viability of Zadroga-funded programs. Those automatic budget cuts will strip nearly $40 million from these programs in the coming year, and nearly $300 million over the six-year life of the Act. However, the amount of money raised by the Act’s dedicated funding stream will not change. It will simply be redirected. Rather than covering treatment for 9/11-related diseases, for instance, it may instead be used to offset new tax breaks for millionaires.
That it took nearly 10 years to get the Zadroga Act passed is pitiful. That programs to provide care for 9/11-related diseases face potentially devastating budget cuts is lamentable. But what is truly deplorable is the lip service paid to the heroes and victims of 9/11 by the very politicians that have repeatedly voted to deny them treatment and compensation.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on September 20, 2012. It is also available on the WAMC website.]