Rand Paul Rediscovers Fiscal Conservatism to Block 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund

Jay Willis
Kentucky’s junior senator voted for a tax-reform bill that would cost $1.9 trillion. But for him, $10 billion for first responders and their families was just too much.

While most of Rand Paul's Republican colleagues were busy ignoring President Donald Trump's ongoing racist tirade against a sitting member of Congress, the junior senator from Kentucky spent yesterday afternoon on a different quixotic mission: single-handedly preventing money for 9/11 victims' medical care from passing in the United States Senate.

The legislation with which Paul takes issue is H.R. 1327, which would reauthorize the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund—first established by Congress in 2001 and then reopened in 2011—through the year 2092. Since its beneficiaries are civilian survivors and first responders diagnosed with cancer or other conditions stemming from post-attack contaminant exposure, the proposed 70-year extension is effectively a permanent one.

Right now, the fund is authorized to dole out some $7.4 billion through December 2020. But earlier this year, with $5 billion already paid out to victims and their families, fund administrator Rupa Bhattacharyya revealed that there wasn't enough money left to fully compensate current and projected claimants, and warned that she would soon have to implement drastic across-the-board reductions to future awards—by as much as 70 percent—in order to avoid cost overruns. In recent years, there's been a spike in claims related to cancer diagnoses, which tend to be more expensive than those associated with other maladies. "The plain fact is that we are expending the available funds more quickly than assumed, and there are many more claims than anticipated," she said.

Congress, in an unusually overwhelming display of bipartisanship, sprang into action. On July 12, the House passed H.R. 1327 by a vote of 402-12, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—spurred on by the impassioned congressional testimony of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart—pledged to call a vote in the upper chamber before the August recess. But on July 11, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its cost estimate for the bill: about $10.2 billion, which would fulfill a total of roughly 37,000 pending and anticipated claims over the next decade.

And this, for Paul, is where the plan goes wrong. Paul is one of the Republican Party's most enthusiastic self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives, who favors a national flat tax, rails against the dangers of government waste, and supports a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the federal budget each year. So when this bill came before him on Wednesday without a deficit-neutral funding provision, Paul objected. "Any new spending that we are approaching—any new program that is going to have the longevity of 70 or 80 years—should be offset by cutting spending that is less valuable," he said, citing the country's $22 trillion national debt. "We need to at the very least have this debate."

Paul's zealous public advocacy for fiscally conservative governance is well-established. His voting record, however, does not always match his rhetoric. Fiscal conservatism could not have been too serious a concern, for example, when Paul voted for President Trump's 2017 tax-reform legislation, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will add $1.9 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade. Yet for some reason, spending money that would amount to a tax-reform rounding error—which, again, will pay for cancer treatment for survivors of the 9/11 attacks—is where Rand Paul puts his foot down.

Wednesday's stunt is more symbolic than substantive: Paul was only able to prevent the act from passing by unanimous consent, an expedited procedure in which senators, as the name suggests, agree to pass a bill by consensus. The Senate's version of bill has 73 co-sponsors, which easily clears the 60-vote threshold beneath which he could, in theory, filibuster it. During his speech, Paul reiterated that his desire is not to kill the legislation but to pay for it, and he promised to offer such an amendment if the bill, against his wishes, makes it to the floor in its current form. "Until then," he said, "I will object."

Originally Appeared on GQ