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House Panel Approves 9/11 Victims Fund Bill

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  • The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would extend funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) until 2090.
  • The VCF helps firefighters, first responders, and volunteers who have health issues stemming from the toxic dust and smoke they were exposed to in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
  • The move comes after Jon Stewart gave an emotional speech before a subcommittee about the urgent need to renew the fund.
  • The video of Stewart’s speech went viral and many people responded by calling for a bipartisan effort to extend the fund.

House Judiciary Committee Approves Act

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve additional funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) through 2090.

The VCF was first created by Congress after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 to help the families of people who died or were injured. The fund ended in 2004, as planned. Then in 2010, lawmakers pushed to reauthorize the fund to help first responders, volunteers, and survivors who had spent weeks at the site of the attack inhaling toxic dust and smoke.

After reauthorization from Congress and then-President Barak Obama, the fund started processing claims from victims in 2011. Congress renewed the bill again in 2015 to extend its funding until December 2020.

Since 2011, Congress has given the fund around $7.4 billion in appropriations, but it has not been enough. In February, the fund’s administrator, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced that the VCF did not have enough money to pay both existing and expected claims.

The newfound approval of the bill, called the Never Forget the Heroes Act, comes one day after comedian Jon Stewart spoke in front of a subcommittee to convince lawmakers to extend funding.

Jon Stewart’s Speech

Over the years, Stewart has been one of the biggest activists for the fund.

He has been quick to call out Congress for being inactive whenever the fund seemed to be at risk, and he did not hesitate to do just that in an emotional speech before the subcommittee on Tuesday.

Stewart started out his speech by criticizing the lack of congress members in attendance.

“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” he said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves here to no one.”

“And you should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be,” Stewart continued.

However, a spokesperson for the subcommittee later said only two representatives were missing. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), the chair of the subcommittee, explained that the meeting was held in a bigger room intended for the full Judiciary Committee, so there were more empty chairs.

Stewart went on the condemn Congress for not giving enough money to the responders and for politicizing the issue.

“Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity. Time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of,” said Stewart. “Why this bill is not unanimous consent and a standalone issue is beyond my comprehension, and I have yet hear a reasonable explanation for why.”

“They responded in 5 seconds, they did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility. 18 years later, do yours.”

Response

Stewart’s speech went viral following the hearing, with many people taking to Twitter to praise him.

Comedians Ricky Gervais and Adam DeVine applauded Stewart, while actor and activist Mark Ruffalo echoed his sentiment, writing, “Plenty of money for wars […] but when it’s time to actually do something to care for the 9/11 heroes and American’s health care…no shows.”

Stewart’s speech also evoked a strong bipartisan response. Donald Trump Jr. and conservative journalist Megyn Kelly commended his work, and conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said in a post on Twitter, “This is bigger than the partisan divide. We should ALL support this!”

On Wednesday, several firefighters and first responders who responded to the attack on the World Trade Center also praised Stewart on a Fox News segment.

What Next?

The Never Forget the Heroes Act will now move to the House floor, which is expected to vote on the bill next month.

Lawmakers said they expect the bill will pass the House easily, but some are worried about its prospects in the Senate. Following the committee’s vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring the bill to a vote as soon as possible.

“We will reach the point soon, most likely this year, when more will have died from 9/11-related illnesses than on 9/11 itself,” Schumer said. “I say to Leader McConnell: This is not politics. This is not a game. These are our heroes, American heroes, who are suffering and need our help.”

I am imploring, pleading, even begging to Leader McConnell to put the bill on the floor immediately after it passes the House,” he continued.

McConnell, for his part, has not said anything about a vote yet. When asked about the fund on Tuesday, McConnell told reporters, “I hadn’t looked at that lately. I’ll have to. We’ve always dealt with that in a compassionate way and I assume we will again.”

Dire Need for Funding

It remains unclear how much the total cost of extending the victims fund for 70 years will cost. Many hope that if the bill is passed, it will be a final fix help the heroes of 9/11 who are desperately in need of medical funding.

Under current funding levels, the VCF administrator said that all future payouts will be cut as much as 70 percent. Already, the fund has more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims.

This is a huge issue. According to CNN, VCF has identified 2,355 deaths that have been associated with 9/11-related health issues, which is nearly the same number of people who died at the World Trade Center because of the attack.

VCF also reported that as of May 2019, more than 12,500 cases of cancer have been diagnosed due to exposure to carcinogens following the attack

This is a growing problem. In July 2011, the VCF identified around 56,000 first responders, volunteers, and others with health problems from 9/11. However, by March 2019, that number had grown to more than 95,000, with nearly 500 to 900 new cases being identified each month.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Fox News)

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Pelosi Says No Stimulus Before Election If Deal Isn’t Struck By Tuesday

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  • On Sunday, House Speaker Pelosi said she was giving the White House until Tuesday to agree to a new stimulus deal if they want one passed before the election.
  • Any agreement is highly unlikely, and even if one were struck, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has refused to bring even the White House’s offer of $1.8 trillion for a vote. 
  • Economists warn that without another stimulus package soon, the economy will backslide even more, and waiting any longer could do serious long-term damage.
  • Millions of Americans are already hurting as most of the benefits from the CARES Act are long expired or set to expire soon.
  • Experts are also concerned that the recent COVID-19 spikes across the U.S. could also hurt the economy.

Pelosi Sets Deadline

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) announced Sunday that if lawmakers and the Trump administration do not reach a deal on a stimulus package by Tuesday, there will not be another round of coronavirus relief before the election.

While that deadline came after a meeting between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, where the two did seem to make headway on some issues, there are still a lot of key areas that need to be hashed out.

Despite this new deadline, after months of deadlock, there is really nothing that has happened over the last few days that would indicate they are closer to a deal. If anything, the waters have become more muddied in recent weeks following a series of abrupt shifts on the part of President Donald Trump.

On Oct. 6, Trump suddenly announced on Twitter that he would stop all negotiations until after he won the election. Just a few hours later, following significant backlash, he called for Congress to pass smaller bills like approving new stimulus checks.

Two days later, Trump tweeted that the negotiations for a full package were “moving along,” and called on both sides to, “Go Big!

On the same day, Mnuchin announced that the White House would increase its coronavirus stimulus offer to $1.8 trillion, which was up from their previous $1.6 trillion offer, though still down from the $2.2 trillion Pelosi asked for.

But a few hours after that, Trump went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and said that he, “would like to see a bigger stimulus package frankly than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering.”

Trump reiterated that call again while speaking on Fox News Thursday, while simultaneously blaming his own Treasury secretary for not offering enough money in the talks and suggesting, without any explanation, that China would pay for it.

However, Trump’s call for more appeared to go against the will of his own party. Within a matter of hours after Trump’s interview, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not even bring the $1.8 trillion proposal for a vote.

The leader argued that the amount was much higher than what Republicans would agree to, and instead said he would advance a much smaller $500 billion package in the coming week. In other words, even if Pelosi and Mnuchin were to strike a deal, unless they drop it by about $1 trillion, it is almost certain that it would be blocked by Senate Republicans.

Economic Fallout

While the prospects of a pre-election deal remain increasingly slim, the need for another stimulus deal is becoming even more urgent by the day.

It has now been seven months since the last stimulus package, and any more delays will only do more damage to the economy and the American people. Economists have warned for months that without another stimulus injection, the modest economic recoveries the U.S. has made — in large part because of the CARES Act — will be undone in the short term.

In the long term, there will be lasting economic scars that could take months if not years to fully recover from.

The first stimulus package was not supposed to be a cure-all — it was supposed to be a short term fix. Now, many key parts of the coronavirus stimulus package passed in March, such as expanded unemployment benefits, aid to small businesses, and funding for state and local government, have either expired or run out — or are about to.

For example, while the extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits ended three months ago, there were other programs in the CARES Act that extended the amount of time that people could receive benefits.

Normally, people can only collect unemployment for 26 weeks, but the March bill extended that until Dec. 31. Without another stimulus package to extend that measure before the deadline, millions of people who still do not have jobs will simply stop receiving unemployment help.

That would be incredibly serious because already, millions of Americans are hurting, the economy is showing signs of slowing, and the impacts of not having any widespread, cohesive stimulus injection since March are clearly on display.

A recent Columbia University study found that early stimulus efforts, like the expanded unemployment benefits and the stimulus checks, kept 18 million people out of poverty, but when those resources dwindled and ended during the summer, poverty rates spiked drastically. Since May, 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty during the pandemic.

Similarly, according to another recent report from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Research Institute for Housing America, more than 6 million households missed their rent or mortgage payments last month alone.

COVID Concerns

Separately, economists are also concerned that the recent, dramatic spikes in coronavirus cases all across the country will also have a negative effect on the already faltering economy.

Over the last few weeks, new daily COVID-19 infections have risen to their highest level since July, meaning the U.S. is now reporting numbers that are on par with the highest caseloads it has recorded through the entire pandemic.   

The case numbers are also rising at alarmingly rapid rates. According to reports, just since last month, daily new cases have risen more than 60%, and two-week averages show that cases are increasing in all but seven states. 

Despite the fact that health experts and officials have long warned that a fall and winter surge could undo any economic gains without proper preparation, President Trump has all but ignored these calls.

While speaking on Fox News Business Thursday morning, the president downplayed the new massive spikes and outright said he did not support the strict restrictions local officials have imposed in the past to try and limit the spread of the virus.

“We’re not doing any more lockdowns,” he said. “We’re doing fine.”

During a rally in Wisconsin on Saturday, Trump also hit on that point again, insisting that the U.S. is “rounding the corner” despite all evidence to the contrary.

“We’re doing great, we’re doing really well,” he added. “I wish you’d have a Republican governor because frankly, you got to open your state up. You got to open it up.”

Trump’s encouragement for Wisconsin to reopen even more came just one day after the state reported its highest number of new daily cases ever. Wisconsin is also reporting the fourth-highest per capita cases in the country and is home to four of the top seven coronavirus hot spots.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Health Experts Denounce “Dangerous” Herd Immunity Document Cited by White House

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  • The White House has cited a controversial document that advocates for natural herd immunity by letting the coronavirus travel through the population and infect people until enough of the population fights off the virus and gains immunity. 
  • Quite significantly, the plan says that “those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,” while at the same time “better protecting those who are at highest risk” of catching or even dying from the virus. 
  • It does not explain how to achieve this goal.
  • The plan has been condemned by multiple health experts and agencies, including the World Health Organization, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others. 

White House Signals Willingness to Engage in “Herd Immunity

Leading health experts around the world are denouncing a document cited by the White House earlier this week that advocates for a natural “herd immunity” approach to combat COVID-19. 

Essentially, the plan outlined in the document, known as the Great Barrington Declaration, would allow the COVID-19 virus to naturally travel through the population and infect people until enough of the population fights off the virus and gains immunity.

The White House’s connection to the document was revealed earlier this week when two anonymous administration officials told multiple media outlets that the White House had cited it.

“We’re not endorsing a plan,” one of the officials told reporters. “The plan is endorsing what the president’s policy has been for months.The president’s policy — protect the vulnerable, prevent hospital overcrowding, and open schools and businesses — and he’s been very clear on that

“Everybody knows that 200,000 people died. That’s extremely serious and tragic. But on the other hand, I don’t think society has to be paralyzed, and we know the harms of confining people to their homes.”

The declaration was drawn up last week by three scientists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Universities. 

Notably, it has seemingly been signed off on by thousands of scientists and health experts from around the world; however, it’s also been reported that some of the signatures attached to the document are fake, with people signing names such as “Dr. Johnny Bananas.” It’s unclear how many of the signatures are from actual medical experts and how many aren’t.

Much more notably, that document has also faced widespread criticism from an overwhelming amount of reputable public health officials because it argues for “focused protection.” 

Under that plan, “those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal” while at the same time “better protecting those who are at highest risk” of catching or even dying from the virus. The authors of this document described that process as “the most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity.”

“Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching,” it says. “Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume.

“People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”

Criticism Against Herd Immunity Approach

Notably, the document never actually discusses how a person could both live like there’s no coronavirus and also protect their at-risk family or friends. In fact, that’s arguably been the greatest source of criticism directed against it. 

In a Wednesday statement denouncing the document, the Infectious Diseases Society of America called the plan “inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed.” 

The statement, titled “‘Herd Immunity’ is Not an Answer to a Pandemic,” adds that even though the authors of the document frame it as a “compassionate approach,” it is “profoundly misleading.”

The document was similarly denounced by the United Kingdom-based Science Media Centre, which cited multiple medical  experts. 

“Scientifically, no evidence from our current understanding of this virus and how we respond to it in any way suggests that herd immunity would be achievable, even if a high proportion of the population were to become infected,” Dr. Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said.

“We know that responses to natural infection wane, and that reinfection occurs and can have more severe consequences than the first. It is hoped that vaccines will provide superior responses, and indeed vaccination remains the only robust means of achieving herd immunity.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said, “Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it. 

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. It’s scientifically and ethically problematic.”

Thursday morning, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called such a “herd immunity” approach “nonsense and very dangerous” because “by the time you get to herd immunity, you will have killed a lot of people that would have been avoidable.”

Since the pandemic began, nearly 8 million Americans have contracted COVID-19, but that’s still less than 3% of the country’s population. In fact, a herd immunity approach obtained by catching the virus would require, at the very least, around another 155 million Americans getting infected (likely, it would take more than that). 

As of Thursday morning, 217,000 Americans have died. A “herd immunity” plan could cause that number to skyrocket. 

As Business Insider noted, “There are non-herd immunity strategies that would help the world get back to normal.” That includes aspects like testing, contact tracing, and universal mask-wearing.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Business Insider) (The Hill)

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SCOTUS Says Census Count Can End Early, Siding With Trump Administration

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  • The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration and allowed it to stop the 2020 census count until the Appeals Court decides whether the count should be stopped early.
  • The order is technically a temporary halt, but experts say it’s almost certainly an early end as it requires officials to start tabulating the data that many say is incomplete.
  • Many condemned the move and said ending the census early will result in incomplete, basically unusable data. Others noted that traditionally hard-to-count groups like people of color, immigrants, and low-income households will be hurt the most by the decision.
  • Some specifically blamed the Trump administration directly and said the whole effort was a move to benefit Republicans because excluding historically undercounted groups would likely give them more seats.

SCOTUS Sides With Trump

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration can end counting for the 2020 Census early, suspending a lower court’s ruling that extended the count to Oct. 31.

The move effectively ends a contentious months-long legal battle following the Census Bureau’s sudden decision in August to end all counting on Sept. 31, a full month earlier than the deadline previously set by the administration itself to account for delays caused by the pandemic.

In explaining the reasoning behind the move, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Census Bureau needed data by then in order to meet the congressionally mandated Dec. 31 deadline for reporting census totals to the White House.

Top officials at the bureau have been warning for months that it would be impossible to meet the December deadline and still get an accurate count. In spring, the agency asked Congress to change the law and push the deadline to April 2021 — a plan that President Donald Trump himself had openly supported at the time.

The Democrat-controlled House approved the ask as part of their $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill passed in May, but the Senate did not even consider it.

Experts condemned the Trump administration’s decision to cut the count short, arguing that it would drastically skew the census data, making it basically unusable. The move, they said, would leave many people undercounted in the census data, which used not only to allocate congressional seats for the next 10 years, but also to determine how also how trillions of dollars in federal aid is given to states.

To make matters more complicated, many experts said the abrupt change would specifically result in the undercounting of historically hard-to-count communities that arguably need it the most, like people of color, immigrants, low-income households, college students, people in rural areas, and others. 

Legal Battles

The administration’s decision immediately faced numerous legal challenges from a range of advocacy groups, cities, counties, and Native American tribes who sued the administration to keep the Oct. 31 deadline.

At the end of September, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh granted those groups a preliminary injunction, effectively ordering the administration to continue the count until the end of October. 

The Trump administration asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to block the injunction while it considered the case, but the court rejected that request. The Department of Justice took the question to the Supreme Court, filing an emergency request to stop the counting last week.

The high court sided with the administration in a nearly unanimous ruling, allowing the administration to stop the count while the Appeals Court was deciding. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a lone dissent on the matter.

“Even a fraction of a percent of the Nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted,” she wrote in her dissent. “And significantly, the percentage of nonresponses is likely much higher among marginalized populations and in hard-to-count areas, such as rural and tribal lands.”

“The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable,” she added. “And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”

While the order is technically temporary, the decision to stop the count two weeks before the deadline is already set to happen could be damning.

“As a practical matter, however, it almost certainly ensures an early end because the census — one of the largest government activities, involving hundreds of thousands of workers — cannot be easily restarted and little time remains before its current deadline at the end of this month,” The New York Times explained. “In fact, some census workers say, the bureau had already begun shutting down some parts of its count despite a court order to continue it.”

Blame on Trump Administration

In addition to expressing disappointment with the court ruling, many others also blamed the Trump administration directly.

Julie Menin, the director of NYC Census 2020, told reporters that the census had “been stolen by the Trump administration, which has interfered at every step of the way, and now, the census has been cut short during a global pandemic.”

Some also accused Trump and his administration of politicizing the census and intentionally making these changes to benefit Republicans.

Numerous reports have found that excluding certain people — especially in those traditionally undercounted groups — would likely give them more congressional seats.

That idea has also been bolstered by an order Trump signed in July directing the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census totals used to allocate House seats. Studies have also extensively found that leaving noncitizens out of the count would result in more Republican seats.

Critics who alleged that the Trump administration was ending the count early as a way to help Republicans also pointed to the timing. If Trump loses the election, delaying the deadline for census totals too much beyond Dec. 31 would mean that former Vice President Joe Biden would get to make decisions about the count, not Trump.

Notably, the order excluding non-citizens from the census was rejected by a federal court last month, and while the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that decision, the highest court has not yet said if it will hear the case.

Regardless of the intent, some experts also argued that in addition to the lasting harm that will be done by undercounting, the actions the administration has taken will also shatter public confidence and trust in the census.

As Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and consultant told The Times, the Trump administration’s handling of the count “inevitably will undermine whatever public confidence remains in the census results.”

The administration, she added, “could do the right thing, and allow those operations to wind down in an organized way over the next two weeks, or it could continue to push for rushed results, accuracy and quality be damned. The commerce secretary’s next steps will tell us everything we need to know. ”

Official Response

On Wednesday, Ross issued a statement applauding the SCOTUS decision.

“Yesterday’s action by the United States Supreme Court allows the 2020 Census data collection to come to an orderly end and for data processing to begin, taking an important step toward delivery of a complete and accurate count, he said.

“Unlike much of the press reporting about this case, the Supreme Court understood these facts, with only a single Justice writing in dissent, he added. This is a tremendous accomplishment and I commend everyone at the Census Bureau who helped our country meet this goal.”

Ross also referenced a press release from the Census Bureau following the SCOTUS ruling where the agency pushed back on the criticisms that the count was inaccurate or the data was skewed and claimed that as of Oct. 13, “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census.”

However, experts have said that estimate likely is just a public relations stunt estimate that covers up huge gaps in the accuracy of the tally. Some pointed to the fact that census workers across the country have said they were told to cut corners and skip steps to rush and bring all states to a 99% completion rate.

But as The Time’s explains, that rate, “does not represent households that have actually filled out census forms. Rather it appears to include those checked off the list of uncounted households by any means, however inaccurate.”

The outlet also pointed to an example in San Francisco, where the gates to an apartment building with thousands of units were locked, making counting difficult. To address that, the bureau directed those workers to stop interviewing residents and just give an estimate provided by the apartment manager.

The list the manager provided, however, only included the names of people who had signed the lease but did not say if they had roommates or families.

Notably, the bureau’s press release also said that the census internet self-response will still be available until Oct. 15. If you have not filled out the census yet, you can visit My2020Census.gov to complete the short questionnaire.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (NPR)

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