No question, the biggest Capitol Hill story of the pre-Christmas week was the Senate’s ratification of the New START treaty. But let’s not overlook the remarkable achievement of Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn.
Amid high-profile lame-duck debates over New START, gays in the military, an omnibus spending package, and the Bush tax cuts, the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act had garnered relatively little attention — until Comedy Central funnyman Jon Stewart launched a one-man crusade to secure its passage. GOP critics of the measure were castigated as insensitive at best and immoral (perhaps even unpatriotic) at worst. No Republican caught more flak than Senator Coburn, who demanded significant changes to the bill and threatened to delay its approval until 2011.
The idea of boosting medical and financial aid to heroic Ground Zero workers was never controversial. But the proposed legislation needed serious fixes. Indeed, various aspects of the 9/11 bill — the cost, the duration, the lack of adequate oversight mechanisms, the loopholes for trial lawyers — were deeply problematic. Unfortunately, Republicans who suggested as much were pilloried for their “callousness” and “cowardice.”
Well, guess what? On Wednesday afternoon a compromise version of the 9/11 bill passed by unanimous consent. Had Coburn simply folded? Quite the opposite. He had succeeded in obtaining major revisions that greatly improved the final product.
Originally, the ten-year cost of the legislation would have been either $7.4 billion (House-passed version) or $6.2 billion (amended Senate version). The ten-year cost of the compromise will be only $4.2 billion. Originally, the bill would have cost billions more beyond the ten-year window. Those added costs were jettisoned entirely from the compromise. Originally, the re-opened 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) — which closed in 2003 — would have stayed in operation through 2031. Now the VCF will be shuttered — permanently — in 2016. Originally, legislative loopholes would have permitted certain attorneys to gobble up a massive chunk of 9/11-related settlements. The compromise imposes a rigid ceiling on trial-lawyer fees, limiting them to 10 percent of the total amount awarded and giving the VCF “special master” authority to slash fees that he considers disproportionate. Originally, the bill suffered from a dearth of accountability controls. The compromise includes muscular safeguards against waste and abuse.
In short, Coburn’s thankless efforts resulted in a much better 9/11 bill — a bill that won approval without even a formal vote. I’m not sure there are any profound “lessons” to be drawn here — the 9/11 measure was a unique piece of legislation, and its chief Senate sponsors (New York Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand) were desperate to see it enacted during the lame-duck session — but the junior senator from Oklahoma deserves hearty praise for weathering a storm of vitriol and forcing the necessary improvements.