WASHINGTON -- The victims and survivors of 9/11 are being forced again to sacrifice -- this time by the sequestration budget cuts that are dipping into revenue set aside for ailing first responders and using it for deficit reduction.
When the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed Congress at the end of 2010, the bill's authors carefully made the $4.3 billion fund one of the federal government's "mandatory" spending programs, shielded from the annual budget-making process and the usual politics involved.
The law included two new, dedicated revenue streams dreamed up by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that not only pay for a compensation fund and treatment program, but also spin off some surplus to cut the deficit by $433 million.
One source is a visa fee, and the other is a tariff on foreign companies that get federal government business, but whose own nations don't let United States companies get their government contracts. Neither of those revenue streams are affected by sequestration, and the funds continue to flow into the U.S. Treasury at the same rate. Yet sequestration increases the take the federal government is siphoning off -- this year by about $27 million.
The effect is to dock cash meant for victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and use it to pay the nation's other bills.
“Nothing exemplifies this unbalanced and irresponsible approach to deficit reduction more than asking our heroes who have already sacrificed so much to sacrifice yet again,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the act's sponsors who along with Schumer and other members of the New York delegation are trying to persuade other leaders to spare the 9/11 funds.
“The Zadroga Act fully pays for itself, reduces the deficit by over $400 million and would be immune from the sequester if not for the technicality of when it was signed into law," Gillibrand said, referring to language in the sequestration law that exempted health funds for nuclear workers and others that had passed earlier than Zadroga.
"First responders have already been to 12 funerals this year alone for brave heroes who got sick at Ground Zero -- they deserve to be treated as more than a technicality," she said. "Our 9/11 heroes who answered the call of duty and risked their lives should be treated with the same dignity as our veterans. It's now time for Congress to do the right thing and exempt this vital program from the sequester just like 6 other similar programs."
Gillibrand and Schumer have filed a bill to fix the problem, but its prospects are far from certain. They could try to bring it to a vote on the Senate floor, or add it to another bill as an amendment, perhaps the measure working its way through Congress currently to fund the government after March 27.
If the sequestration remains in force for the Zadroga Act, it could slow contracts in the $1.5 billion treatment program to help people sickened by their work to recover after 9/11. The larger impact would likely be to the compensation program. It is not clear that the $2.7 billion set aside will be adequate for the thousands of people expected to be eligible. The cuts would also make it more difficult for the 9/11 compensation fund's special master to figure out how to divide payments not knowing how the remaining years of sequestration will play out.
All told, the cuts would approach $200 million if sequestration is not altered.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.