Special Report

The Farce Before Christmas

Jon Stewart and the 9/11 responders bill.

By 12.30.10

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Comedian Jon Stewart is the new Edward R. Murrow. Why? He shamed Republicans into supporting a bill to pay the health care bills of 9/11 first responders. It is written in the New York Times, therefore it must be so. The cognoscenti nod their heads in agreement, and another page in the history of the Obama administration is inked.

Of course, it is all nonsense.

Even the New York Times, it seems, is getting its news from The Daily Show these days. But getting one's facts from a fake news show, as actual journalists used to point out, is risky business.

The story of Jon Stewart saving the 9/11 responders bill from heartless Republicans has already become accepted folklore, although like most folklore, it just isn't true.

The folklore goes like this: Senate Republicans didn't want to pay for health care for 9/11 responders. They used the excuse of wanting to extend the Bush tax rates first to prevent the bill from passing. Then Jon Stewart ranted about their obstructionism on his show, urging them to "just @#%&ing pass it!" Shamed, they caved and passed the bill.

In fact, the bill was flawed and Republicans had serious objections to it from the start. It did more than simply pay for 9/11-related health expenses for New York City first responders who were on the scene that horrible day. According to the Los Angeles Times, only half of the people covered by the original bill were first responders. The other half were civilians -- city residents, school children, and volunteers who came to help clean up in the aftermath of the attacks. But there is no telling who those people actually are. It is believed that about 10,000 people came to the city to help. They were from all over the country. Republicans were rightly concerned that the bill could become a blank check to virtually anyone, anywhere who claimed to have gotten sick as a result of 9/11.

Senate Republicans who opposed swift passage of the bill in the final days of the lame duck Congress were not opposed to the concept. They were opposed to the size and scope of the bill and to the process that would've fast-tracked the bill without allowing amendments. What is more, they said they were opposed to exactly that, not because they wanted to pass the Bush tax rates first.

"I'm not trying to fight it; I'm trying to get it right," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., told Politico.com. "There are 30 things that ought to be changed real quick in committee but very difficult on the floor. To finish a bill at this point of time, we're not going to be able to amend it."

The Wall Street Journal reported the opposition of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., this way: "Mr. Coburn wants the package to be funded through spending cuts, the aide said. He and others in his party have questioned whether the money would overlap with workers' compensation and other aid provided to Sept. 11 first responders."

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "It's one thing to make an emotional appeal to say we need to take care of people, but it's another to do it in a sensible way."

But an emotional appeal was all Jon Stewart had. "It's a win, win, win, win, just f*&@ing do it!" he screamed. Never mind the facts, such as: it was a $7.4 billion bill, not $7 million, as Stewart said. Also, Democrats had plenty of time to pass it, as it was introduced in February of 2009. But they didn't schedule it for a House vote until this past July. It didn't come up in the Senate until after the November, 2010 elections. And then Democrats tried to ram it through with little debate and no amendments.

Fortunately for the taxpayers, Senate Republicans stood their ground in the face of emotional, uninformed appeals by the likes of Stewart. The popular narrative is that they caved after Stewart's rant. In fact, they held out for major concessions that wound up cutting the cost from $7.4 billion to $4.3 billion.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wound up praising Republicans after the compromise was reached.

"Over the last 24 hours, our Republican colleagues have negotiated in good faith to forge a workable final package that will protect the health of the men and women who selflessly answered our nation's call in her hour of greatest need," he said.

In other words, the amended bill does what we claimed the original would do, but for $3.1 billion less.

In sum, Senate Democrats got cast as patriots for trying to use the cover of 9/11 to needlessly spend an extra $3.1 billion we don't have, while Senate Republicans got cast as traitors for trying to save the taxpayers' money. And the comedian who got it all wrong was rewarded by being cast as one of the greatest journalists of the century. The actual Edward R. Murrow would've had a field day with all that.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.