Why conservatives should support the Zadroga 9/11 First Responders Act

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There’s been much contentious debate and public-relations jockeying over the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, just passed in Congress and soon to be signed by President Obama. It provides compensation for the “first responders” of the September 11th terrorist attacks, which includes EMTs (emergency medical technicians), police and fire professionals and construction workers who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center to aid survivors and assist with forensic duties.

Though not the first time the U.S. government has compensated victims of a domestic attack (we also did so following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942), the magnitude of this disaster and the response of civilians and professionals alike was unprecedented.

Concerns over costs

The original bill, which was voted down by Congress in both July and September, requested $7.4 billion for this purpose; but the compromise version passed on December 22nd slashed this to $4.2 billion, with $2.7 billion to be distributed over the next ten years to compensate first responders and $1.5 billion for health monitoring and treatment. Conservatives had several legitimate concerns about just what it would cost, how it would be paid for, legal fees and possible waste, fraud and abuse — particularly with regard to the reopening of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and the length of time it could be open to review claims.

As to total cost, the $4.3 billion price tag is paid for. In fact, according to Congressman Peter King (R-NY), it will actually trim the deficit by $450 million over ten years because of the funding mechanism — which places a 2% excise tax on foreign companies that have U.S. government contracts but are located in nations not part of the Agreement on Government Procurement (specifying openness and non-discrimination in government contracts). The bill also calls for extending fees on certain firms that rely on H-1B and L-1 visas, which permit legal passage of foreign workers to the United States.

Secondly, with regard to legal fees, which for similar personal-injury cases can be as high as 33%, Zadroga caps them at 10%. And what often does not get reported is that many attorneys have been representing clients pro bono for years. According to ProBono.net, “More than 4,000 individuals and families affected by the disaster were served on a pro bono basis by volunteer lawyers, and 1,310 small businesses received pro bono legal assistance.” As an added protection, an appointed “special master” will have the authority to reduce attorney fees considered excessive. Additionally, Zadroga prevents the 10,500 9/11 first responders who were successful plaintiffs in a recent lawsuit against New York City from “double-dipping” with the current legislation.

The bill will move the expiration date of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund forward from 2031 to 2016, with the provision that claimants who initially were rejected by the fund are barred from pursuing civil lawsuits. A reasonable concern that has been expressed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is that the longer the fund is open, the more opportunity for fraud exists.

This is nowhere near a perfect bill. There are several good questions the GOP minority has raised about the number of recipients who will be affected, overlap of benefits, oversight, and potential gouging based on current Medicare reimbursement schedules. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), who called the bill “flawed,” and Sen. Coburn, who had threatened to block the legislation in the Senate, should not be pilloried for their fiscal concerns. The GOP simply got caught in a media-fueled public-relations firestorm that was beyond their control. But the key point here is that debate occurred and compromise was reached. And there is nothing prohibiting the incoming GOP House majority from working to amend the current legislation at a later date. Certainly if this act could be passed in a truncated, lame-duck session of Congress, it could (and should) have gotten done months ago — without regard to either credit or blame.

If we value the sacrifices our citizens make on our behalf in times of national emergency, we need to exhibit the type of thoughtful compassion expressed by prominent Republicans like Mike Huckabee, who has a personal friend, a 9/11 first responder from Texas, now dying of cancer. Simply stated, if there are people anywhere suffering as a result of the selflessness they showed on that horrible September day and in its aftermath, we as Americans ought to provide them with aid and comfort. Certainly, compromise in the face of principles is never easy; but in cases like the Zadroga Act, which was the epitome of legislative “sausage” being made, members of Congress have worked to try to resolve this problem, which, after all, is what they were sent to Washington to do.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.