This is one of those issues that should be huge and should receive coverage for years as an example of the worst kind of Congressional corruption.
By now you might have seen Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D, NY) outburst on the floor of the House July 29, 2010. It was an impassioned response immediately after Rep. Peter King’s (R, NY) own relatively passionate speech. You can view both here.
Weiner was enraged at the Republicans’ obstinacy in voting for a bill that would pay for 9/11 first-responders’ medical care, and seemed incensed at King’s use of procedural rhetoric to fight the bill
Weiner, whose constituency I belong to, has now become somewhat of a (temporary?) hero among some of my friends. In the middle of his performance, King interrupts, and Weiner responds: “The gentleman will observe regular order and SIT DOWN…The gentleman will SIT. The gentleman is CORRECT in sitting.” One of my best friends quoted the last line on his Facebook wall and followed with: “lmfao my new hero.”
The speech was admittedly an entertaining performance, worthy perhaps of an Oscar for best House actor. Furthermore, he is 20 years Rep. King’s younger, and the two of them together on television creates an image dichotomy as lopsided as the Nixon-Kennedy debates. From what I can tell, Weiner successfully scored political points with constituents, fellow Democrats, his fans at CNN, and even his friends at the UAE. Skim the comments on any video of Weiner’s speech and you’ll see how maverick-like he comes off. (If you must.)
However, there is far more to this issue that not only exonerates the Republican stance (somewhat) but makes Weiner’s tirade look more like the Congressional version of a misbehaving child diverting attention by blaming his parents for bothering him with questions: “Can’t you see I’m trying to fix it?? God! Leave me alone.”
Unfortunately, this episode might soon fade into obscurity before the truth permeates society. The House will vote on the bill again after the August break, and it will most likely be passed. So before this becomes just another minor footnote in the encyclopedic history of Congressional outrages, here are the details that I am afraid will be forgotten:
The bill under debate is H.R.847, The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. From the summary of the bill on the House page, it is a program that would provide, “medical monitoring and treatment benefits to eligible emergency responders and recovery and cleanup workers who responded to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001” and “initial health evaluation, monitoring, and treatment benefits to residents and other building occupants and area workers who were directly impacted and adversely affected by such attacks.”
The Daily News lays out the specifics: “The bill would spend $3.2 billion on health care over the next 10 years for people sickened from their exposure to the toxic smoke and debris of the shattered World Trade Center. It would spend another $4.2 billion to compensate victims over that span, and make another $4.2 billion in compensation available for the next 11 years.” This amounts to $11.6 billion for 21 years in total.
Given the tragic nature of any hero suffering for selflessness in the downtown chaos of 9/11, such a well-meaning bill should face absolutely no opposition from anyone with a conscience. Additionally, this bill is a long time coming, given that it is 9 years in the making.
Official Jargon Warning!! The vote on Thursday was “On Motion to Suspend the Rules and Pass” the bill.
To the chagrin of CNN’s Ali Velshi (see below), I am going to discuss the specifics of the procedure, for it effectively prevents the very heart of Republicans’ concerns from being debated.
According to the Huffington Post, “a procedural maneuver [was] made by Democrats to suspend the rules before consideration of the [Act].”
What are the 3 NEW rules to be aware of? According to Wikipedia, “Once a member makes a motion to ‘suspend the rules’ and take some action, debate is limited to 40 minutes, no amendments can be offered to the motion or the underlying matter, and a 2/3 majority of Members present and voting is required to agree to the motion.”
In other words, the Democrats in the House limited (and thus expedited) debate on this matter, with the caveat that they would need 16% more votes than they would normally need if rules were not suspended.
Wikipedia also explains why anyone would want to suspend the rules: “Most often, bills ‘on suspension’ are non-controversial legislation — such as naming Post Offices of the United States Postal Service or federal buildings — and nearly all bills that are considered under suspension rules have bipartisan support.”
Of course, it turned out that this bill was controversial. Instead of getting the requisite 66% of votes, the bill only garnered 59%, with votes largely along party lines.
Weiner vented because he did not see the bill as controversial.
(It is also interesting to note that the bill garnered far more than 50% of the vote. More on that below.)
There are a few amendments to the bill that the Republicans believed were essential. These amendments, of course, were suspended under the procedural maneuver.
1. One change to the bill would have adjusted the funding for compensation. “To pay the bill’s estimated $7.4 billion [immediate] cost over 10 years, the legislation would have prevented foreign multinational corporations incorporated in tax haven countries from avoiding tax on income earned in the U.S.”
The Daily News reports that Republicans saw this as, “a tax hike on foreign companies that hire Americans.” Supporters of the bill saw it as closing a tax loophole: “Democrats savaged the other side, saying they were turning their backs on heroes to protect foreign tax cheats.”
In the end, this particular Republican concern centered on the economic and employment effects of the bill’s tax.
2. Another issue the Republicans saw with the bill was its lack of protection from use by illegal immigrants: “King said Democrats were ‘petrified’ about casting votes as the fall elections near on controversial amendments, possibly including one that could ban the bill from covering illegal immigrants who were sickened by trade center dust.”
3. This is tied to the larger issue of preventing the scamming of money from this bill. Rep. Lamar Smith (R, TX) worried that the bill “does not contain the necessary protections to safeguard taxpayer dollars from abuse, waste and fraud.” Republicans objected that the compensation created a “slush fund” under current provisions.
It is important to understand that scamming this fund and allowing its money to go to illegal immigrants does not just reward the undeserving, but specifically punishes the suffering 9/11 heroes. I have yet to hear this point being made clearly, but it would be the single worst consequence of passing the bill as is, if Republican concerns about oversight are truly well-founded.
Of course, debate has been stifled on the House floor, so we do not know just yet.
Regular rules call for what is known as a simple majority vote, which means that if more than half of the Congressmen vote “aye,” the bill is passed. 59% voted “aye” this time around and the Democrats control the House. As they have done plenty of times since January 2009, they could have voted to keep every single provision in the bill as is.
On this basis alone, it would seem that Weiner has no one to yell at except for those who motioned to suspend the rules (the Democrats).
(Rep. Peter King, Weiner’s nemesis in this battle, has been making this very case. Interestingly, King is not merely Weiner’s prime opponent. He happens to be a sponsor of the bill. He was one of the 12 Republicans that voted for it. It is this fact that should convince anyone that perhaps there really was a problem with the bill’s procedure.)
Instead, Weiner rants that the Republicans defeated the bill.
If you look at this without a grain of nuance, you might be tempted to agree.
Unfortunately for the truth, Rep. King is not the greatest spokesman, so he was not able to make his case as well as Weiner did on the House floor and in interviews thereafter.
Weiner’s game plan has been to point out the Republicans’ failure to vote for the bill, while dodging questions about procedure with either a full disregard or a dismissive: ‘you know, we could talk about procedure until we all doze off, but the bottom line is that Republicans are cold. Heartless, really.’
Given the situation as it appears today, almost everything Weiner says on this issue is a misconstruction of the facts and/or is hypocritical. He blames Republicans for (a) politicizing the bill, (b) finger-pointing, and (c) stalling, while (a) he is the one making a spectacle, despite the fact that bills are often voted down on procedural grounds and despite the fact that the bill is now scheduled for further debate after recess, (b) he is constantly citing how many Republicans voted for the bill and how few Republicans were needed to pass the bill, and (c) he belongs to the party that has held power in Congress since 2007 and only now decided to bring the bill up for a vote in a pre-recess rush (again, Democrats can vote the bill through the House without a single Republican supporter).
Anthony Weiner had the opportunity to explain himself in an interview with a fawning Ali Velshi at CNN. A few points here reveal so much about his character in this narrative.
Weiner paints Republican obstructionists as complaining about tedium as the only reason for voting down what is obviously a humane bill. He does not talk about any specific issue Republicans had with the bill as it was:
The fact that the excuses that were being made… “Well we don’t like this being done so quickly”; “we don’t like it being made on this calendar”; “we don’t like it on this day.” At the end of the day, I think the American people want us to stand up and vote for what we think is right, and that’s what got my goat last night.
The opposition is portrayed as a mass of powerful misanthropes in black cloaks pointing out minutia to prevent any semblance of positive progress. Vintage propaganda.
My favorite part of the interview is when Ali Velshi directly asks Weiner for what it was about the procedure that the Republicans took issue with, “without getting arcane and into House rules.”
Haha! ‘What?? CNN has no time for these petty details! Do go on, Mr. Weiner, please.’
Instead of giving an arcane and drab answer, like, “under this procedure, the House does not have time to adjust the bill as some of its members would like,” Weiner gives this brilliant and direct analysis of the problems of suspension of House rules:
The fact is that we have a special procedure for things that are non-controversial, so they don’t go on for months and months and months of debate; things that we basically agree upon. And this was one of those bills — or so we thought — and we were very very close. You know, people don’t realize that if only 21 of the 155 Republicans that voted “no” changed their position and voted “yes,” maybe if Peter King did more time calling them rather than calling names of Democrats [sic], then this thing would have passed. This is a common procedure; it’s used all the time. It was used today a couple of times already. Because, frankly, it was beyond a lot of peoples’ understanding why anyone would want to politicize this and make it a long, drawn-out fight. It’s already been nine years. It’s already gone through two committees. It’s already had many amendments to it. The time is done for stalling. We need to provide these first responders, who were my neighbors, with the care that they need. [my emphasis]
His answer to why the procedure did not work started by explaining the purpose of the procedure. How perfectly irrelevant. But Ali Velshi did not want to go into House rules, so he was probably satisfied with the answer, and did not think to pursue the subject further.
Weiner then spends most of his answer pointing a finger at Republicans while complaining about Republicans, “calling names of Democrats.” He chides them for politicizing the matter, as though he was not guilty of the very thing at the moment, and complains that Republicans were stalling, when it is true that, again, the Democrats can pass the bill whenever they want because they have enough votes for a simple majority.
Phew. One more quote! For the record, this one would be my favorite soundbite of the interview it wasn’t for Velshi’s inane question above…
Weiner says, “Why don’t they [Republicans] just vote ‘yes’ and then complain about the procedure later once the bill gets passed… A lot of those people voted no, simply because Democrats are in charge.”
Is the idea of representing the wishes of a constituency so foreign to Rep. Weiner? I think it’s time for me to move from his district.
Anyway, it’s good to know that Weiner believes that the time to complain about procedure is after the vote has already taken place. It’s good to be aware that he knows exactly what he’s talking about.
THE FINAL SLEAZE
On its face, this episode centers around a bill with a very humane idea and the King-Weiner exchange makes the Democrats look great and the Republicans look awful.
But the Democrats could pass the bill whenever they like. Instead, they used an “arcane,” yet apparently standard, procedure that prevents debate. Republicans had serious issues with several of the provisions and oversights of the bill and debate will take place later.
Did the Democrats know Republicans would vote this down? Were they trying to score political points? If they were, then kudos to them.
Did the Democrats merely want to stifle debate because they did not want to go on record supporting illegal aliens benefiting from this bill or vice versa? Did the Democrats not want to go on record supporting what might be viewed as a tax increase and unemployment booster? Did the Democrats not want to fight the certain “abuse, waste and fraud” of a 9/11 health slush fund?
This is upsetting to me as a New Yorker and as a human being in general. The only people who lose out are those brave and unfortunate men and women that abandoned their personal duties and helped the country on September 11th. It is time the country repaid them, and any sort of politicization of this is simply unacceptable.