Comedian and former Daily Show host Jon Stewart testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday. Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to continue paying for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, and Stewart was joined by several first responders — men and women firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who performed rescue and clean-up duties after the 2001 attacks — to ensure that the government keeps funding their medical expenses. (By 2007, seven out of ten first responders faced respiratory issues due to Ground Zero contamination; hundreds have gotten cancer.)
Stewart at one point grew frustrated with how few subcommittee members were at the hearing. “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 in a passage that went viral on social media. “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 down here to speak to no one.”
According to a congressional spokesperson, only two subcommittee members actually did not show up — Democratic representative Eric Swalwell and Republican Guy Reschenthaler. Others cycled in and out of the hearing, leaving many seats unfilled for long stretches of time. But the funding process has indeed been messy. Ever since the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act survived a Republican filibuster in 2006, its future has been uncertain, with the Victims Compensation Fund standing as its only portion that is funded through 2020. This week’s vote would extend it, but advocates want Congress to pay for it permanently — even as the government claims that money is running so low that future payouts could be cut by up to 70 percent.
For their part, Republicans have repeatedly opposed extension on the basis that it is too pricey, with many resisting the fund’s renewal until doing so became politically perilous. These perils were most apparent lately in the dustup around Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about 9/11. Speaking in March at a gathering hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Minnesota Democrat referred to the attacks as “some people did something” while describing how they were used to justify criminalizing Muslims. Republicans seized on her statement to accuse her of trivializing the violence. Representative Dan Crenshaw tweeted that Omar’s remarks were “unbelievable,” while President Donald Trump shared an inflammatory video that interspersed her words with footage of the planes colliding with the Twin Towers. Both men have fraught legacies regarding 9/11. After the towers collapsed, Trump famously boasted that he now owned the tallest building in lower Manhattan (he did not) and claimed that “thousands” of New Jersey Arabs had cheered the destruction (they did not). Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, had yet to support renewing the Victims Compensation Fund in April when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused him of being a hypocrite for attacking Omar. He has since climbed onboard as a co-sponsor.
Republican resistance to extending the fund seems to have similarly reversed in recent months, but its long-term sway shows how much more instinctive it has been for politicians to invoke 9/11 to inflame bigotry than to agree that its victims deserve health care. The GOP especially has spent years fearmongering around Islamist terrorism and funneling Islamophobes into positions of political power, culminating most recently with the elevation of Trump — who sought to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. outright — to the White House. Omar’s comments only trivialize the 9/11 attacks by the least generous (and most Islamophobic) assumption: that their speaker — one of the first two Muslim women sworn into Congress — is more inclined to exonerate the perpetrators than mourn the victims. Yet even as Republicans pursue this reasoning, their insistence on depriving Americans of free health care generally has translated into a noncommittal stance on extending special treatment to 9/11 first responders.
The party’s claim that government-funded care is too expensive already clashes with public sentiment: A majority of Americans support a single-payer plan, according to polling. But applying this argument to the men and women affected with health problems after mining Ground Zero for bodies has forced Republicans to pit their stance on health care against their posturing as the only party that treats 9/11 with the reverence it warrants. So far, they have barely had to reckon with the moral dimension of their long-term position — that covering health-care costs for first responders is too expensive to pursue in perpetuity, but Islamophobia is free and wins votes. Stewart’s advocacy and the Omar controversy seem to have shifted the GOP’s cost-benefit analysis. But the historical precarity of Republican support remains key to understanding the party’s priorities.