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Posted at 5:24 PM ET, 12/22/2010

The 9/11 bill passes -- but should it really have been this hard?

By Ezra Klein

The bill extending medical benefits to 9/11 responders passed today. It had been held up because, well, it's not exactly clear.

At one point, Sen. Tom Coburn said the problem was the bill hadn't had a hearing in committee. That was untrue: It had been heard and passed through the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee -- the very committee Coburn sits on. It turned out he just hadn't shown up to the hearing.

At other times, Coburn said that the problem was that the bill wasn't paid for. That also wasn't true: The bill was fully offset by closing a tax break for foreign corporations that operated in the United States. Coburn had also supported the unpaid-for extension of the Bush tax cuts under the theory that "It’s not a cost. That’s where we are today. That’s the baseline. It doesn’t score anything to continue them." None of that is true, incidentally. The budget baseline does not include the extension of the Bush tax cuts, and so they score as a cost.

Coburn eventually released a "detailed outline" on his opposition to the legislation. It's detailed, but it's not particularly persuasive. It really just throws a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Coburn argues, for instance, that "government health care benefits crowd-out private benefits. Private plans will have incentive to drop coverage for procedures and health care entities in which enrolled patients can receive benefits through the 9/11 program." The idea that "crowd-out" would be a problem when you're dealing with a population as small and unique as 9/11 responders is laughable. Coburn's document also relied on his office's calculations of the bill's cost ($10.4 billion), rather than the Congressional Budget Office's ($7 billion).

The bill finally did pass, but only once Democrats shaved it from $7 billion in benefits to $4.3 billion in benefits. It's quite a place for the GOP, which just fought to extend $700 billion in tax cuts for the rich, to begin cutting back. To get a sense of the people and problems we're talking about here, watch this interview Chris Hayes conducted with a 9/11 responder who subsequently lost 30 percent of his lung capacity due to inhalation of particulates at Ground Zero:

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By Ezra Klein  | December 22, 2010; 5:24 PM ET
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To Republican politicians you can't be an American hero if you come from a big city in a blue state.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | December 22, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

The capacity of Republicans for sheer downright dumbness and their ability to get away with it is astounding. There was no hearing. Oops, I guess I just slept in that day!

Posted by: jtmiller42 | December 22, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Sen Coburn threatens to block this bill, and lies about why on at least two occassions.

I'll repeat that: Senator Coburn lied, twice, about blocking a bill to help support health care support for 9/11 first responders.

Perhaps had he actually attended the hearing held on June 29th he would have had some of his questions answered.

But it never really was about any genuine concerns, was Dr Coburn? Of course not. It was, in truth, about craven politics, a game plan by the GoP. The strategy of No.

But then, a light was shone on you and your positions, and like a pack of cockroaches, you all began to scurry for cover.


Posted by: FDNY | December 22, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

It's the medical version of Pigford!

Posted by: msoja | December 22, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

The issue is sort of moot right now since the congress approved the bill as part of the last minute frenzy of legislative activity, but I don't think it's correct that the bill was voted out of committee. Did you verify that such a vote occurred? The committee held a single hearing which didn't get into nuts and bults issues so I don't know that sufficient work was done to vote the bill out of committee..and the committee members don't seem to think a vote occurred. As far as Coburn's memo, no doubt it included a number of b.s. issues, but it seems some of the questions and issues that were raised deserved some attention and analysis and I haven't seen a single piece of journalism over the last few months that did more than cover the inside politics of the story or report on the indignity and callousness of holding up a bill that would benefit the first responders. I believe the first responders have been recieving benefits under other programs including an annual approprations bill and that the purpose of this bill was, in part, to end the annual review and curb NYC's financial costs. If the existing bill deserved passage, then I'm glad it did during the lame duck, but it's a bit disconcerting that the media analysis was so shallow.

Posted by: wswest | December 22, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

@wswest Major media outlets don't usually run stories on Congressional procedure issues unless they're really crazy—it's pretty boring stuff. GovTrack says the bill was reported out of committee 29 July of this year.

Posted by: benchatt | December 22, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

@wswest Major media outlets don't usually run stories on Congressional procedure issues unless they're really crazy—it's pretty boring stuff. GovTrack says the bill was reported out of committee 29 July of this year. Link

Posted by: benchatt | December 22, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks. The link said July 29 was the date it passed the House. No reference to activity in the Senate. The procedural issues may be boring to cover but I didn't find any analysis on the substantive issues either. Is it that a $8-$10 billion bill is now considered too trivial to analyze/follow or was it ignored because it was attached to a worthy cause?

Posted by: wswest | December 22, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Republicans are idiots politically for taking this tactic. Worse than that it is for people who risked their lives (many of whom died in that undertaking) and those that survived are living through a very painful life. I don't often agree with many liberal media outlets like Countdown but they're 1000% right here.

Oh and btw just in the interest of being totally factually correct while the republicans did as you say "fight to extend $700 billion in tax cuts . . ." is maybe technically correct they actually ended up with just a two year extension. Nice turn of phrase Ezra for maximum effect. They also fought for $3 Trillion in tax cuts for the middle class.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 22, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

I am glad that Coburn won a significant scaleback of this bill. It's poorly targeted, overgenerous by historical standards, overpays medical providers, and is redundent with existing programs.

This at a time when many workers will see significant cuts in PROMISED pension benefits. It's just not right.

And visionbrkr if you know anyone who died or was injured on 9/11 who was not already compensated by one of the two previous major settlements I'd love to hear about it.

And Ezra I feel bad that someone lost 30% of their lung capacity, but 13% of apparently healthy nonsmoking Americans have diminished lung capacit. My grandfather lost 83% of his lung capacity from smoking and he was active until he eventually died from cancer.

Posted by: bmull | December 22, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

It still isn't right, even on behalf of 9/11 responders, to steal from your neighbor and donate it as though it were your own. It isn't altruism to spend other people's money. It isn't charity if it doesn't come from yourself. It's just stealing.

And I don't know what the final bill came out looking like (does anyone, on any of the bills, these days?) but there was a lot of stipulations in there that had nothing to do with responders.

It's another disgrace, perpetrated by the gov and the gov's facilitators.

Posted by: msoja | December 22, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Many existing laws and regulations apply specifically to pregnant women. Several provisions of the Affordable Care Act offer new benefits for expecting mothers. Search online for "Wise Health Insurance" if you need affordable insurance for yourself or your wife.

Posted by: daleleblanc | December 23, 2010 4:17 AM | Report abuse

Well, Jon Stewart must have more clout than I thought. I'd assumed that the bill would pass early in the new year, and the Republicans would then say "See? We get things done. We had four years of a Democrat do-nothing Congress and they couldn't even bring themselves to help 9/11 first responders instead of inflicting Obamacare and gay soldiers on us. Now we're in charge again we can help people who really deserve it."

I guess Stewart's publicity meant that tactic was no longer viable.

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | December 23, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

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