GOP hand powerful pro-veteran burn pit issue over to Democrats
Republicans really stepped in it this time. Whether or not they find a way to work with Democrats to pass the super-popular PACT Act, which would provide unprecedented assistance to veterans suffering from toxic exposures, they have all but ceded pro-veteran issues to the Democrats.
This week, Republicans helped to kill a procedural bill that would have pushed ahead the PACT Act, which provides $250 billion to veterans and opens new opportunities for vets suffering from myriad illnesses they believe are connected to the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veteran organizations have been fighting for recognition for their maladies — which include everything from irreversible respiratory conditions to cancer — for some 15 years. The PACT Act overwhelmingly passed the Senate in June but the House voted on a slightly modified version, sending it back to the Senate this week.
But Republicans like Sen. Pat Toomey who had voted for the initial bill, say the current legislation would create a slush fund of billions of dollars for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with little Congressional oversight. They say the bill would mandate not only would the $250 billion for PACT (which would avoid the regular appropriations process each year) but also an additional $400 billion of previous VA spending. (They also vociferously deny that the “nay” vote came after the the Democrats were able to finally push through the Build Back Better bill without their votes.)
While the fiscal conservatives may be making a strong argument about oversight, they seemed to have picked the wrong time to stiffen their backbones on an issue of fiduciary responsibility. This is, of course, a Congress that up until recently had no qualms about pouring billions into a slush fund (called Overseas Contingency Operations) when there were caps placed on the Pentagon budget. They have found ways to fund pork projects using fuzzy math after so-called earmarks were banned, and they continue to raise the Pentagon budget into the stratosphere year after year.
In the wake of Republicans killing the bill, Democrats and veterans advocates exploded in condemnation. As I write this, veterans were engaging in a sit-in outside of Republican offices. Jon Stewart’s visage was blasted across the media — conservative outlets, too — to rebuke the GOP for letting veterans down.
“So ain’t this a bitch?” Stewart said Thursday at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “America’s heroes, who fought our wars, outside sweating their asses off, with oxygen battling all kinds of ailments, while these motherf**kers sit in the air conditioning walled off from any of it? They don’t have to hear it. They don’t have to see it. They don’t have to understand that these are human beings. Did you get it yet?”
It was clear from when I started covering this issue in 2009 that this was a grassroots effort, built by sick veterans and their families, their doctors, veterans organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), American Legion and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and, finally, members of Congress who have been advocating over the long haul. But at its core, the movement could not have progressed without its own fierce determination because the Pentagon and VA have been loath to take responsibility for toxic exposures, fearing the liability would break the bank. It was a fight all the way.
Well, Washington chose to send millions of men and women to their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — just like they did in the Persian Gulf a generation before and Vietnam a generation before that. (Those veterans, by the way, are also helped in the PACT Act because their illnesses — due to Agent Orange and exposures in the Gulf — have not all been recognized either).
Republicans are getting politically slapped around today, and it is hard to defend them under the present circumstances. The movement hasn’t come this far to let politics get in the way now.