A bill to provide long-overdue healthcare and disability compensation to U.S. Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange deserved unanimous congressional passage — and it almost had it.
But one U.S. senator, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, recently stood up and said no, scuttling the a two-year bipartisan effort.
Earning his stripes as Senatorial “Grinch of the Year,” he explained his opposition in terms that might make you think he was doing sick veterans a favor.
“We owe our veterans, who have sacrificed for their country, our careful consideration of legislation that would affect them so much,” Enzi said in a press release. “The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is no exception. Yet the Veterans Administration continues to have serious concerns. This could impact veterans across the board. We need to carefully increase benefits.
Right, senator. That’s why you single-handedly blocked a bipartisan bill that would help up to 90,000 Blue Water Navy veterans receive the care they deserve after it passed the House 382-0.
What on earth would you have done if you didn’t respect them so much?
It takes real intestinal fortitude to sign off on a statement that’s so divorced from the reality of one’s actions. Perhaps being able to stomach such spin is a symptom of having been in Washington too long. Or maybe it’s a side effect of prolonged exposure to the Trump administration. In Enzi’s case, I diagnose both.
Whatever the cause, his words and actions are an embarrassment to Wyoming and a disservice to our fighting men and women.
Enzi, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, claimed he acted out of fiscal responsibility. That would be easier to swallow if he hadn’t wholeheartedly backed a huge tax cut for corporations and the country’s richest individuals that is estimated to add at least $1.5 trillion to the national deficit over the next decade.
No, Enzi had to play deficit hawk with the lives of veterans hanging in the balance. Shame on him.
Agent Orange is a mixture of dioxin-based herbicides that the U.S. sprayed in Vietnam to destroy crops and forests that helped conceal enemy forces. But it also has been proven to cause heart disease, respiratory cancers and Parkinson’s disease.
Veterans and their advocates fought for years to get the federal government to honor its commitment to those who served in Vietnam and recognize their Agent-Orange related health claims. Congress finally did in 1991. But in 2002 the Veterans Administration decided to restrict disability benefits to veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam.
This left in the lurch Navy veterans who served off Vietnam, Thailand and the Korean DMZ aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships — “Blue Water” veterans who were also exposed to the toxic weaponry. House Resolution 299 was the culmination of 16 years of lobbying to get the VA to finally do right by them as well.
The way the Blue Water vets have been treated is nothing less than a national disgrace. Enzi has provided the capstone to this unjust episode.
There’s no excuse he can offer to justify making veterans who are literally running out of time to receive help wait until next year for the bill to be reintroduced.
The VA is also culpable in this madness. Without evidence, the agency declared that the Congressional Budget Office’s original estimate of the bill’s cost at $1.1 billion over the next decade could balloon to $5.5 billion. The key word is “could,” there’s no evidence to show that it will. But Enzi seized on the VA’s numbers and disregarded the CBO’s calculations, then used his power as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee to block the bill.
Where else have we seen $5.5 billion in the news lately? Oh right, that’s roughly the same amount Trump is demanding for his border wall — a 14th-century solution to a fabricated problem. I’m sure we’ll be hearing about the senator’s fiscal responsibility concerns for that endeavor any day now.
The cost of providing healthcare and compensating disabled Navy veterans must be offset by budget reductions elsewhere. The House bill took care of that by nominally raising interest rates for VA home loans. Phil Briggs, writing for connectingveterans.com, expressed the thoughts of many when he wrote, “I would gladly absorb a tiny fee to help my fellow veterans.”
This isn’t the first time the federal government has turned its back on veterans, but it’s one of the most egregious. Forty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, thanks to Enzi it’s still refusing to honor its obligations to military men and women.
The Senate sponsors of the House bill pressed for unanimous consensus for the measure. Without such a move there wasn’t enough time to have the bill approved before the end of the session. By blocking the legislation, Enzi has made it necessary for the time-consuming voting process to begin again after the newly elected Congress begins its work in January.
How does Enzi think our all-volunteer military is supposed to obtain more recruits when people thinking about serving their country know beforehand that they won’t be taken care of?
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), one of the bill’s main backers in the Senate, perfectly spelled out the government’s responsibility to veterans.
“The studies have borne out that these folks were exposed and we need to provide that benefit,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “That’s it. It’s as simple as that. If we’re not willing to take care of our veterans when they get back home, we should not send them into places in this world where they will be exposed to toxins or get shot.”
B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called out Wyoming’s senior senator for failing veterans.
“My disappointment with Sen. Enzi’s obstruction is beyond measure, because what he did was fail to take care of forgotten veterans who were exposed to toxic substances and he failed to take care of their children who sadly inherited a toxic legacy,” Lawrence said. “The VFW nor its members will forget this.”
Neither should Wyoming veterans, Wyoming citizens and all Americans.