The Missing “Least-We-Can-Do-No-Brainer Act of 2010”

As I was reading Wednesday’s “Playbook” by Politico’s Mike Allen, the unofficial scorecard of Beltway obsessives (and those who wanna be), the story that caught my eye was, naturally, the one Allen labeled “The Big Idea/Pundit Prep/If You Read Only One Story.” In it, Bloomberg’s Lisa Lerer and Laura Litvan reported that “The 111th Congress made more laws affecting more Americans since the ‘Great Society’ legislation of the 1960s.” It quotes the great liberal historian Alan Brinkley calling this Congress “probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the ’60s.’”

The authors note that it was also a historic year for the financial sector:

Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. are positioned to complete their best two years in revenue, General Motors Co. has emerged from bankruptcy with more than $23 billion repaid to the U.S. Treasury, and American International Group Inc. was able to sell $2 billion of bonds in its first offering since the company’s 2008 bailout. The S&P 500 Index has gained 38.9 percent since Congress convened in January 2009.

This is in addition, of course, to the spending spree these same folks will be enjoying as a result of the extension of the massive Bush tax cuts to those lucky Americans who enjoy incomes of over $250,000 per year. That’s well below the average salaries at Goldman Sachs, by the way, and that includes the meager amounts paid to janitorial and secretarial staff.

So while it was a rough year for millions of Americans, plenty of people did just fine. Not among them, however, were most of the people who, nearly 10 years ago, volunteered to risk their own health and well-being when their country was the victim of a horrific terrorist attack that not only killed roughly 3,000 people and injured many more, but also transformed the politics and culture of this country.

There was not a word in Wednesday’s “Playbook” about legislation that was at the time before the Senate and designed to help those people. The news has been overflowing with politics of late, from the tax “compromise” to the collapse of the spending bill to the passage of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the ratification of the START treaty and the rejection of the “DREAM” Act. But one piece of legislation that had a hard time getting much love was the bill to ensure that those heroes of 9/11 got the medical attention they needed as a result of the injuries suffered that day. (Readers may recall that George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency falsely assured New Yorkers that the air near the site of the attack was safe to breathe. On the basis of that assurance, I foolishly took my then-three-year-old daughter down to see the site, making it the first and last time I ever believed any official statements issued by the Bush administration.)

Our politicians vowed over and over to remember and honor the victims of 9/11. But the truth is that the event has been far more exploited than respected. September 11th has provided any number of backdrops for speeches and political commercials, and even presidential fundraising appeals despite George W. Bush’s panicky performance that day.

The buildings destroyed have not been rebuilt, the perpetrators have not been caught, and an entire war was fought that exploited Americans’ feelings of anger and betrayal. It had literally nothing to do with bringing any of the attackers to justice though it may have inspired many more such attacks on our allies and assets around the world.

These are in some respects complicated issues—or appeared so at the time the necessary decisions were taken. One issue that remained as simple as can be, though, was the fact that the people who came to the aid of their country in those horrific hours needed that same country’s aid to deal with the health problems they experienced as a result.

Voice of America reports, “According to researchers at the Albert Einstein University’s Montefiore Medical Center in New York, the dust at the World Trade Center site was ‘a combination of the most dense, intense particulate matter [fire fighters and EMS personnel were] ever exposed to in an urban environment.’" David Prezant, a specialist in respiratory medicine, explained to Voice of America that respiratory ailments arising from exposure to that dust results in "a persistent, real decline that requires long-term monitoring and aggressive treatment." A report by the AFL-CIO in September of this year revealed that 13,000 first responders were still being treated for health problems nine years after the attacks took place.

"They told us if we did our job, they’d take care of us. We did our job. Now we’re sick and they don’t remember who we are anymore," said Greg Staub, who retired from the New York City Fire Department in 2009 due to chronic lung problems.

As hard as it is to believe, not only did the issue prove controversial, but many of the very same conservatives who were so eager to go to war in Iraq to avenge the imaginary role that nation played in the attack apparently thought that its victims should fend for themselves.

“This legislation as written creates a huge $8.4 billion slush fund paid by taxpayers that is open to abuse, fraud, and waste,” said Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he was blocking the legislation because it provided "overly generous funding."

Almost as shocking was the lack of attention to this issue paid by most members of the mainstream media. It is especially appalling when one considers the obsessive coverage not only of the 9/11 attacks but of every single phony scare that resulted in its aftermath as well as the deliberately deceptive tactics employed by the Bush administration to fool the nation into invading Iraq.

It appeared as if the rescue workers with cancer and other life-threatening health issues would continue to go begging for money and media attention until Jon Stewart decided to devote his final show of 2010 to what he called "the Least-We-Can-Do-No-Brainer Act of 2010." But Stewart used the power and influence he has amassed as America’s most powerful comedian—ever—by forcing the issue back into the microscopic attention span of the nation’s political pundits and reporters. He noted how much more attention the phony threat of the inaccurately named “9/11 mosque” had received on cable compared with the plight of these people. He reported that the best coverage could actually be found on Al Jazeera.

Stewart also interviewed four rescue workers, including a fire fighter, a cop, a Department of Transportation employee, and an engineer. All of them were suffering from illnesses related to their heroism. Why no other media outlets thought to do this is a long and sad story, but at least a few of them took an interest after being shamed by Stewart.

The following day, Fox News’s Shepard Smith did a segment in which he asked “Are we going to leave these American heroes out there to twist in the wind?” He returned to this “shameful” issue the following day. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow ran much of Stewart’s interview segment as well. John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, who helped Stewart set up his interviews, credited the comedian because he “literally shamed conventional media and the U.S. government into doing the right thing.”

Or sort of the right thing. Wednesday evening, Congress approved a $4.3 billion aid package to sick workers, which is a reduction from the original $7.2 billion legislation approved by the House. That figure represents approximately 3.2 percent of the amount of money that will be pouring into the pockets of Americans who make more than $250,000 per year. All in all a fitting ending to a year when, despite the worst employment picture in America in roughly 80 years, it was a damn good time to healthy, wealthy, and conservative.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.