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Monday, December 04, 2023

Column: One last look at Zadroga and the up-hill battle

For those of you who read my column regularly — hi, Mom and Dad! — you know the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act is a piece of legislation I kept close track of last semester. Well, on Dec. 18, the Zadroga Act was finally reauthorized via its inclusion in the omnibus bill, the spending agenda Congress crafts for the following year.

This is a cause for celebration. Thirty-three thousand Americans who face debilitating illnesses and cancers after responding immediately to the 9/11 attacks or helping to clean up the rubble for months on end will officially receive permanent health care coverage and renewed compensation benefits.

Before we dedicate our toasts and cheers to the Zadroga Act’s permanent reauthorization, let us take a moment to truly process the grueling struggle to overcome bureaucratic ineffectuality it took to get this legislation reauthorized.  

The fight for the Zadroga Act dates back all the way to 2009 when, after much lobbying from 9/11 first responders, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., originally proposed it to the U.S. House. What happened?

Well, in December 2010, a GOP filibuster nearly killed the legislation. Instead, Republican senators directed their attention toward passing a major tax-cut bill on Dec. 15. In an attempt to justify the GOP filibuster against 9/11 first responders’ health benefits amidst a speedy effort to pass tax cuts for the wealthy, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., argued, “...there is a deadline… taxes go up on Jan. 1.”

Only after intense public scrutiny from cosponsors of the Zadroga Act, citizen activists, first responders themselves and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart did Republican senators agree to vote on a revised Zadroga Act with a five-year expiration date.

Fast-forward five years to December 2015: What happened? The Zadroga Act was left to expire on Oct. 1, a reauthorization act to make Zadroga’s health benefits permanent was stonewalled by a handful of GOP senators and the lobbyists and first responders once again found themselves descending upon Capitol Hill to beg for support from their representatives.

Heartbreakingly, by November 2015, the Zadroga Reauthorization Act had enough cosponsors (over 60 in the House and over 240 in the Senate) to pass a vote, but it was instead stalled by proposals from the House Judiciary and Energy committees that sought to strip considerable funding from Zadroga’s health programs.  

Even after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-W.I.., assured reporters that the Zadroga Act would surely pass by the end of 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell further undercut Zadroga by removing it as an attachment from the $305 billion highway bill that sought to ensure the approval of U.S. oil exports.  

In 2010, it was tax cuts; in 2015, it was oil exports. As Kanye would put it: same hell — just different devils. Only, it’s actually the same devils, because Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Thune refused to cosponsor the Zadroga Act both in 2010 and 2015.

Now, in the end, Sen. Mitch McConnell has included the Zadroga Act with the 2015 omnibus spending bill, but only after — once again — relentless lobbying from first responders, overt criticism from Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and the return of comedian Jon Stewart to publicly shame Mitch McConnell on Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show.”  

What does it say about us when sick, wounded first responders have to travel to Capitol Hill hundreds of times to get the health care they deserve? When a handful of New York representatives endure a six-year-long battle of bureaucracy with their own colleagues to pass a common-sense piece of legislation? When a comedian has to use national television — twice — to shame our senators into acting in transparency?

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Perhaps the state of our union is not as strong as we would like to imagine.

David Hoffman is a UF history and physics sophomore. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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