The 9/11 Bill and Political Maneuvering

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Today the House passed a bill to provide $7.4 billion to monitor, treat and compensate those who worked at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. It’s still unclear if the bill will pass the Senate intact, but it was still a victory for proponents nonetheless.

The bill is noteworthy for the effect it could have on the medics, firemen and volunteers who inhaled toxic dust while they dug through the rubble at Ground Zero in search of survivors and remains. It’s also noteworthy because its history shows how members from both sides of the aisle routinely mount political attacks under the guise of legislating.

Yes, this happens all the time, but the 9/11 bill provides an illustrative example that’s too perfect not to describe.

Close observers of politics and Youtube might remember when Anthony Weiner lost his cool on the House floor back in July.


In the clip, Weiner accuses Republicans of “wrapping their arms around Republicans rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes!” Here’s what Weiner’s tirade and today’s House vote were really all about. The short version: political posturing. The long version:

The first House vote on the 9/11 bill was brought up in a way requiring a 2/3 majority vote to pass and prohibiting any amendments. Enough Republicans voted against the bill for it to fall short of a 2/3 majority not because they didn’t support the bill itself, but because they wanted the chance to offer amendments. Specifically, they wanted to offer an amendment that would exclude illegal immigrants from the benefits provided in the bill. Allowing this amendment to be offered would have forced Democrats to take a tough stand on illegal immigrants in a way that most likely would have divided them and made them vulnerable to political attacks later on. Democrats would not allow this.

The result was that the 9/11 bill did not pass, despite having, at that time, fairly broad bipartisan support.

Then today, Democrats brought the bill up again under normal House rules. This meant they were basically assured passage, but had to stomach Republican proposals to change the bill. Republicans were eager for this opportunity because it gave them a chance to offer what’s called a “motion to recommit.” The Republican motion, as it turns out, had almost nothing to do with the 9/11 bill.

Instead, the motion would have rolled back a few key provisions in the Affordable Care Act, particularly those that are highly unpopular or easy to caricature. The motion would have, for example, repealed the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a 15-member independent panel created by the ACA and charged with figuring out ways to cut Medicare payment rates to keep them from increasing so quickly. (Political attack version: “Mr. Congressman voted to ration Medicare.”) The motion would have also yanked $100 million in funding in the ACA for a health center at the University of Connecticut. (Political attack version: “Ms. Congressman voted for a sweetheart deal for Connecticut at the expense of taxpayers.”) Additionally, the motion would have enacted strict malpractice reform, setting a 3-year statute of limitations on malpractice claims and capping non-economic damages at $250,000. (Political attack version: “Mr. Congressman voted against tort reform.” Version 2: “Mr. Congressman voted for tort reform.”)

Republicans knew their motion to recommit had no chance of passing. The purpose of offering it was to force House Democrats to take another vote on health care reform.

How many votes on the Affordable Care Act are Democrats going to be forced to make? A lot more, if today is any guide. Over in the Senate, Republican Mike Enzi offered a bill today that he knew would fail. It would have repealed the grandfathering provisions in the ACA; it went down 40-59. (Political attack version: “Mr. Senator voted against allowing you to keep your health insurance even if you like it.”)

Today’s votes make you wonder about the viability of rolling back even the most unpopular pieces of the Affordable Care Act. More centrally, they also make you wonder how much our great legislative body could accomplish if they did away with symbolic, purely political maneuvers.