Op-Ed: Not Congress' Finest Hour - JuniperCivic.com
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Originally published in the September 2019 Juniper Berry Magazine

Op-Ed: Not Congress' Finest Hour

We all remember the horrors of 9/11, whether we experienced them first hand or saw everything unfold on TV. The attacks united our country like never before, and even our usually partisan elected officials were all on the same page for once. Everyone vowed to never forget but that apparently was just a convenient catchphrase for some lawmakers. Because in the years since, they seem to have forgotten that the US government declared Ground Zero safe when it wasn't, leading to the illnesses and deaths of thousands of first responders and residents over time. One of the duties of Congress is to make sure those who were harmed during that awful period receive just compensation and adequate care. But instead they continually dropped the ball for 14 years in a protracted tone-deaf display of cowardice.

In 2001,Detective James Zadroga was a decorated member of the NYPD who served more than 450 hours at Ground Zero during rescue and cleanup operations. Soon after, he developed a mysterious lung ailment. In 2002, James reported his injury to the NYPD, but his claim was denied. His health rapidly declined with doctors being unable to effectively diagnose or treat his condition.

While he eventually qualified for disability pension payments, his loss of income led to a financial burden. In 2003, he was finally diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung Disease, as a result of his work at Ground Zero. He unexpectedly became a widower in 2005 and then passed away in 2006 at the age of 34, leaving behind an orphaned 4-year-old daughter. He was the first person diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and New York Representative Carolyn Maloney initially co-sponsored a bill which never came to a vote in 2005 and failed to pass in 2006 due to the budgetary concerns of some members of Congress.The bill would have extended the protections of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, aka the VCF, to those who suffered from 9/11-related illnesses. There was opposition based on the projected cost and the belief that funding should be handled by states, rather than the federal government. It's hard to believe that people who routinely authorize ridiculous, wasteful spending projects had a hard time signing off on a bill to offer a lifeline to victims of terrorism, but that was the sad reality.

A different version of the bill, named after Det. Zadroga and known as The Zadroga Act, passed both chambers in 2010 after a lengthy battle over the terms and cost and was signed by President Barack Obama in the beginning of 2011. The bill was reauthorized in 2015 under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, extending coverage to 2090. Everyone involved had hoped that this would be the end of the lobbying, but 9/11-related illnesses take a while to manifest and the predicted decrease in claims over time instead became an unexpected increase. Unfortunately, the Victim Compensation Fund had only been funded through 2020. It became clear by 2018 that there was insufficient funding to cover forecasted claims.

In late 2018, a bipartisan group of Congress members had introduced a bill to replenish the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. In February 2019, the Special Master administering the VCF announced that there was no choice but to cut pending claim awards by 50% and new claim awards by 70%. It was looking very doubtful that the funding bill would come up for a vote before the end of the 2018-2019 Congressional session, which would have killed it.

This past June 11, several ill first responders testified before the House Judiciary Committee, demanding that the bill be passed. The site of American heroes being forced to beg Congress for help was stomach-churning. Comedian Jon Stewart, a long-time outspoken supporter of 9/11 first responders, used his celebrity power to draw the media's attention to the issue and publicly roasted the members of the committee who were holding up the vote. After being thoroughly embarrassed before the eyes of the country, the next day the Committee unanimously passed a bill to permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2090.

A few days after testifying, Det. Luis Alvarez, a former NYPD bomb squad detective who had become the face of the issue, passed away in hospice care. His fellow advocates returned to Washington to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had up to that point been waffling on whether or not the bill would be voted on by the full Senate. It was only after being presented with Det. Alvarez's NYPD shield that McConnell promised that the bill would be voted on before the summer recess.

The House passed the bill on July 12 with 402 in favor and 12 opposed. On July 23, the Senate passed the bill 97-2. Those dissenting in both houses once again did so based on cost concerns. (Hopefully they'll express similar sentiments the next time Congress members decide to vote themselves a pay raise.) President Donald Trump signed the bill on July 29.

The bill's full name is, "Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act." Pfiefer, a Queens firefighter and activist, died in 2017 from renal carcinoma.

More than 200,000 Americans across the country who were exposed to toxins at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash site have sought relief from the fund thus far. There are also 20,000 former school children who attended schools near the WTC while it was still a hot zone, who are likely to file future claims. As time goes by, it is almost a certainty that more people will die from 9/11-related illnesses than were killed by 9/11 violence.

The 2001 terrorist attacks weren't only a New York City tragedy, they were acts of war on America. Politicians love to wrap themselves in the flag, but the disgraceful behavior of some over the past 14 years is akin to them throwing Old Glory on the floor and wiping their shoes on it. The public must continually remind its elected representatives that there would be no America without those Americans who rose to the challenge on 9/11 and are suffering and dying today because of it. They were there when the country needed them, now it's time for the country to return the favor. How could their sacrifices be so easily disregarded by those who vowed to Never Forget?

September 2019 Juniper Berry Magazine

September 2019 Table of Contents