Aug 3, 2022

The burn pits bill (The PACT Act).

The burn pits bill (The PACT Act).

The vote was full of drama.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're covering the controversy around the burn pits bill. Plus, a question about replying to reader mail and a preview of Friday!

Chuck Schumer (left), Jon Stewart (center) and veterans celebrate the passage of the PACT Act. Image: PBS News screenshot
Chuck Schumer (left), Jon Stewart (center) and veterans celebrate the passage of the PACT Act. Image: PBS News screenshot

This Friday...

... Is Tangle's three-year anniversary. I can't believe it has been that long. As such, we are going to be releasing a special Friday edition for subscribers that also includes a really important survey of readers about a major change we're thinking of making to the newsletter. When I started this, I made a promise that Tangle subscribers would be like "investors" who got to shape the newsletter. This survey is a big part of that. So...

1) If you're a subscriber, please keep an eye out for Friday's edition.

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Quick hits.

  1. Voters in Kansas rejected a constitutional amendment by an 18-point margin that would have allowed the state to ban nearly all abortion procedures, a major win for pro-choice activists. (The vote)
  2. In Michigan's Republican primary for the 3rd District, Trump-endorsed John Gibbs narrowly defeated Rep. Peter Meijer (who voted for impeachment). Gibbs received a boost from the Democratic party, who believe he will be easier to defeat in the general election (The finish). In Arizona, Blake Masters narrowly defeated Jim Lamon for the GOP nomination and will face Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) in November. (The results)
  3. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Cori Bush (D-MO), two members of Democrats' progressive group known as "The Squad," easily defeated their primary challengers. (The win)
  4. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrived and departed from Taiwan, pledging that the U.S. will not abandon its commitment to the island nation. China condemned the visit and announced military exercises in response. (The visit)
  5. The Justice Department sued Idaho over a law that bans most abortions, alleging the state law conflicts with a federal law that requires hospitals to provide necessary treatment in emergency scenarios. (The lawsuit)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The PACT Act. The bill, short for the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, passed the Senate yesterday and is expected to be signed into law. It will fund research and benefits for as many as 3.5 million military veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their service. The U.S. military notoriously burned waste in large, open pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of those burn pits included materials like rubber, paint, plastic, and human waste. The bill is expected to cost about $280 billion over the next decade.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office said some 250 burn pits existed in Afghanistan and nearly two dozen in Iraq. Large bases produced 60,000 to 85,000 pounds of waste a day. At Joint Base Balad in Iraq, some 200 tons of waste were burned each day, according to researchers.

Exposure to those pits could cause temporary and lasting health difficulties. Many veterans have cited burn pit exposure as the cause of cancers, neurological issues and respiratory diseases. However, veterans have had a difficult time proving conclusively that burn pits caused their illnesses to receive benefits. According to USA Today, the process can take years, and more than 70% of such claims are denied by the VA.

The PACT Act provides a way to research, address and remedy those repercussions, and legislates automatic approval for all such claims.

There has been a lot of drama around the bill. In June, it passed the Senate with overwhelming Republican support. But a technical error necessitated another vote last week, and this time about two dozen GOP senators reversed course and blocked the bill’s final passage. This drew condemnation from veterans' groups, lawmakers, and even the comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who has been a leading proponent of the bill and is drumming up media attention about its failure to become law.

Some Democrats accused Republicans of sinking a procedural vote on the bill as payback for Democrats proceeding with their reconciliation package. The blocking vote came just hours after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced his reversal and an agreement with Majority Leader Schumer to support the package.

Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) said they voted against the bill because language in the bill could allow unrelated spending down the road.

This part of the debate is complicated, so it's important to explain the details.

In federal budgeting, there are two kinds of spending: mandatory and discretionary. Generally speaking, discretionary spending has to be re-approved each year in the appropriations process, while mandatory spending happens automatically, absent a change in law. You can read a longer explanation of this here. Mandatory spending includes things like veterans’ benefits and Social Security, while discretionary spending includes things like the defense and education budgets.

Toomey has been clear that he does not have concerns about categorizing the new $280 billion of benefits in the PACT Act as mandatory spending. Instead, he is objecting to provisions in the bill to move $390 billion in Veterans Affairs spending from the government’s discretionary category to an annual mandatory category, which he said could allow budget gimmicks down the road. As the Military Times explained, "by reducing the total amount of discretionary spending in the non-defense side of the federal budget, future appropriators could have more flexibility to shift money into other non-veteran programs."

Democrats have criticized this argument, noting that the normal appropriations process would allow those debates to play out annually and publically.

Toomey, specifically, wanted to vote on an amendment to clarify this, and was opposed to the bill on the first vote for the same reasons. After he made his arguments again, and Manchin reversed his position on the reconciliation package, 25 Republican senators changed their votes. Republicans have claimed Toomey’s position moved them, while Democrats claimed it was spiteful payback. As Stewart noted, the text of the bill related to spending had not changed at all between the time Republicans first approved the bill and when it failed (there were some very minor mark-ups, but nothing that changed the scope or the issues Republicans raised concerns about).

Last night, the Senate finally passed the burn pits bill 86-11, with all 11 "no" votes coming from GOP members, including Toomey (Sen. Cruz voted in favor of the bill).

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left about what happened, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right supports the funding for veterans, but criticizes Democrats for obscuring what the bill will do to the budget.
  • Many argue that Toomey is right that the bill could open up unrelated spending down the road.
  • Some also criticize Stewart, and claim he misrepresented the Republicans' position.

In National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru said not everyone discussing the bill "has command of the facts."

"Here’s what the Republican objectors, led by Senator Pat Toomey (Pa.), have right: The bill, as written, effectively loosens the caps on discretionary spending by $390 billion," Ponnuru wrote. "The Congressional Budget Office said so shortly before the June vote. That means it would be easier procedurally to spend an additional $390 billion — not on veterans’ health care, not even on a 'VA slush fund' that has entered this confused debate, but on anything. Adopting Toomey’s amendment, as he has repeatedly explained, would not cut veterans’ benefits by one dollar. Here’s what the Democrats have right: This objection applied to the June bill, too, and most Republicans — thinking, at the time, that it would be moving quickly to the president’s desk — voted for it anyway.

"The theory that progressives have been advancing for the last few days is that Republicans have turned their backs on veterans out of pique at the Democrats’ increased likelihood of passing a big spending bill thanks to the Manchin–Schumer agreement, or just to be cruel," he added. "An alternative theory is that Republicans other than Toomey were slow to grasp the implications of the bill for the discretionary caps and want, as they say, to amend the bill to fix the problem. The fact that the issue continues to be widely misunderstood lends some plausibility to this theory. So does the fact that the amendment Toomey is offering wouldn’t cut spending on veterans. So does the fact that while Republicans have indulged in some mostly foolish speculation about retaliation for the Manchin–Schumer deal, they have not been talking about holding up the PACT Act for that reason, let alone coordinating a vote for that purpose. And so, finally, does the fact that such retaliation would be politically insane."

In The Washington Examiner, Christopher Tremoglie said Stewart should be going after Democrats.

"Comedian Jon Stewart hopped on his left-wing soapbox this week to vilify Republicans for the sins of Democrats with regard to the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act," Tremoglie wrote. "The PACT Act is a bill 'entitled to improve health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances, and for other purposes.' It's an important bill to fund an increase in healthcare access to veterans exposed to burn pits, radiation, and Agent Orange during their time in the military. So why did Democrats include $400 billion of unrelated spending in the bill? Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took to Twitter to explain why Republicans voted against the bill.

"'I voted for the PACT Act, and I advocated for it for a long time,' Cruz said. 'We have an obligation to take care of our veterans, particularly those who were wounded or injured from burn pits or in other ways from combat. The issue here is the Democrats included in this bill an accounting gimmick where they took 400 billion dollars of spending, discretionary spending — they shifted it to mandatory spending. Didn't change the amount at all, but the reason they did that is it created a hole for $400 billion in new discretionary spending. They want to cram 400 billion dollars in unrelated spending onto this bill…' If Stewart had any integrity, he would attack the Democrats for their malfeasance instead of being the left-wing shill and performance actor he has always been," Tremoglie wrote. "Stewart's heart might be in the right place, but his mind has been poisoned by Democratic indoctrination and politics."

In Commentary Magazine, Noah Rothman called it a vicious smear from Democrats.

“This smear—and it is a smear—is predicated on the presumption that it will encounter a friendly media environment where it will be disseminated uncritically and without hesitation. When it comes to Democratic talking points, that’s usually a safe bet. It sure paid off in this case. But the truth of the matter is more complicated. In fact, a fuller understanding of the Republican position should compel Democrats with the capacity for shame to explain themselves," Rothman said. "The Pennsylvania senator’s long-held objection to this legislation rests on the fact that about $400 billion in spending over the next ten years has been deemed “non-discretionary,” meaning that it doesn’t need to be deliberately appropriated by Congress and will be spent, no matter what.

“Their confusion, and Stewart’s, is rooted in the fact that so many Republican lawmakers voted in favor of cloture in June but against cloture last week. ‘They’re manufacturing reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for just last month,’ said one frustrated veteran who appeared alongside Stewart… Advocates for this worthy cause don’t even address the simplest explanation for Senate Republicans’ reversal, which is by no means exculpatory of Republicans, that Toomey and his staff read the legislation more carefully than his GOP colleagues. It must be that those senators, some of whom are veterans themselves, ‘don’t support veterans.’... It is not heartless to object to federal spending for spending’s sake at a time of rampant inflation, which was partly exacerbated by the federal government’s introduction of too much capital into an economy typified by shortages in goods and labor."


What the left is saying.

  • The left criticized Republicans for the reversal, alleging it was meant as payback and they should have passed the bill as they did initially.
  • Many praise Stewart for his handling of Republicans.
  • Others argue that the bill is necessary and long overdue.

In CNN, Dean Obeidallah said Stewart had good reason to be infuriated with Republicans.

"The GOP tried to score political points by delaying this vital piece of legislation that would assist an estimated 3.5 million military veterans," Obeidallah said. "This issue is literally a matter of life and death for those sickened by exposure to toxins emitted from burn pits... The legislation would provide hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to help them. And going forward, veterans exposed to burn pits will now have the presumption of having contracted certain respiratory illnesses and cancers, allowing them to more easily obtain disability payments… So why did Senate Republicans block legislation that would help millions of vets last week? Could it be that the GOP doesn't want to hand President Biden a legislative win on an issue he has long championed -- especially so close to November's midterm election?

"Some speculate that Republicans backtracked as part of a backlash after being caught by surprise over the deal announced last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer -- forged in secrecy with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin -- on legislation to address climate change, help lower prescription drug costs and increase tax revenues," he wrote. "Republican Senator Ted Cruz -- who not only voted against the bill last Wednesday to aid veterans, but despicably, was seen fist-bumping other GOP Senators to celebrate the blockage of the legislation -- claimed it was because the measure contained a budget 'gimmick.' ... Stewart is 100% correct about Republican game-playing. The PACT Act passed the House last month with only minor tweaks -- but those minor changes prompted another vote by the Senate. Last week, 25 GOP senators, including Cruz -- flipped their earlier ‘yes’ votes to block it."

In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin said Jon Stewart showed Democrats how to respond to Republican cruelty.

"The GOP’s reversal on the bill seems to be motivated by payback," she wrote. "Republicans voted against the PACT Act because they were angry over the agreement between Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Inflation Reduction Act, the reconciliation package that includes tax hikes on the wealthy, subsidies for Affordable Care Act coverage and investment in green energy. The deal was announced just hours after the Senate passed its bipartisan bill to enhance national security and U.S. competitiveness against China by investing in semiconductor manufacturing.

"In other words, Republicans threw a temper tantrum because they would no longer be able to hold the semiconductor bill hostage to block passage of the Democrats’ popular agenda," Rubin said. "Think about that for a second. Republicans took their frustrations with Democrats out on sick veterans. That’ll show them! In the days since the GOP stalled the bill, Stewart was unflinching. He went in front of cameras on Thursday to express what many Americans were feeling. Regarding Republicans’ about-face on the bill, Stewart said he was used to the 'hypocrisy,' 'lies' and 'cowardice' of politicians, but 'I am not used to the cruelty.'... Republicans will likely come crawling back to approve the bill now that they have been exposed as deceitful, malicious and petulant. But Democrats should learn from Stewart and apply his techniques in other contexts."

In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Navy veteran Jeremy Butler implored Toomey not to block veterans’ care.

"To the nearly 759,000 veterans and almost 2,000 active duty service members who call Pennsylvania their home, the split vote between the Pennsylvania senators could cost them dearly," Butler said. "As if that wasn’t enough, Toomey proposed an amendment to the PACT Act which arbitrarily limits the amount of funding that Congress believes should be spent each year for the next 10 years in support of veterans exposed to toxins. As drafted, this amendment leaves open the possibility that in order to provide sufficient funds for veterans’ health and benefits, additional funding may end up coming at the expense of other critical veteran care programs or even other agencies.

"So I ask Toomey: Are you really putting a price limit on our nation’s promise to care for the brave Americans who have risked their lives to fight for our country? And there continue to be lives on the line," he wrote. "According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) 2022 member survey, 82% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been suffering the consequences of burn pit exposure and/or airborne toxic materials during their years of service. And about half (49%) of those exposed believe they have symptoms associated with the exposure... When our service members made the decision to join the military, they knew that they would face countless dangers as they worked to protect our great country. However, being denied health care from their own lawmakers was one I doubt ever crossed their minds."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

This whole episode is very informative about the current state of Congress and our media — the way so many reporters swallow political talking points wholesale and how so few members of Congress are actually doing their jobs.

So, here is my best read on what happened: Democrats and Republicans had bipartisan support for this bill. When it passed for the first time, senators like Pat Toomey objected on the grounds that it could, plausibly, open up hundreds of billions of dollars of non-veteran spending down the road (which is true). Despite that, nearly all Republicans got on board and voted for the bill, presumably without reading it very closely, which is typical of our inept Congress.

When a technical error brought the bill back up for a vote, Toomey saw an opening. He convinced some Republicans to jump ship, and maybe some did on the grounds of his argument alone, or maybe some were really angry about Manchin's reversal and wanted payback. I find that very unlikely, but I can't totally disprove it (there were reports that Toomey was lobbying members behind closed doors to reverse their positions on fiscal responsibility grounds).

This reversal put people like Sen. Ted Cruz in a very tough spot. Cruz voted for the bill in June, and without any meaningful changes voted against it in July. If he were honest about his position, as Toomey has been, he could tell people that he didn't read the bill all that closely before voting for it the first time, and when he realized what was in it (or when Toomey explained it to him) he changed his mind. Since he's not honest, he concocted a lie about Democrats "slipping in" some budgetary gimmick in the 11th hour, which is not what they did. The bill was fundamentally the same as it had always been. But Cruz couldn't admit that without also admitting he hadn't really read it closely the first time around.

This opened him up to fire from Stewart, who rightly hammered Cruz for the unjustified and lie-filled flip-flop. But Stewart wasn't right about everything, either. When he said over and over that “The PACT Act is a stand alone bill. The PACT Act has no spending unrelated to Veteran’s Health and Benefits. There is no ‘Pork.’ There is no budget maneuver that then allows Dems to backfill [with] whatever they want," he is not exactly right.

As many writers above point out, and as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said, "The current legislation would allow policymakers to transfer up to $390 billion of existing funds from discretionary to mandatory – which would make it easier for appropriators to boost funding in other areas without paying the costs." This isn’t a Republican talking point, it’s just a fact. The difference between spending money that you have and putting money on the credit card, and we already have a lot of money on the credit card.

Toomey was essentially right on what his amendment would’ve done. Many in the media did a terrible job of explaining this, instead choosing to echo Stewart's attack lines uncritically and apply them to all Republicans. Stewart, meanwhile, deserves huge kudos for getting this bill across the finish line, even if he dismissed a legitimate concern in doing so. It's a disgrace it has taken so long in a country that claims to support our troops, and it's an embarrassment that we do such a poor job of caring for our veterans when they come home from war. Meanwhile, Cruz and other Republicans were rightly exposed for their lack of due diligence.

In the end, the bill ended up getting passed without any amendments added — which does open the door for the gimmicks Toomey warned about. As over 80% of the Senate apparently is, I’m glad the bill passed, even without Toomey’s amendments, because the need to better fund these programs is truly pressing and cannot wait. Republicans can (and likely will, if they gain majorities and the White House) lower the discretionary cap to prevent unrelated spending down the line. If that money is irresponsibly diverted in the future, I hope the press gives it the same attention it gave Republicans this week. But I won't hold my breath.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Hi Isaac, I've been a paying subscriber for about a year and a half now. Seeing how quickly Tangle is growing, at what point do you think it will not be feasible to personally respond to emails anymore? It's one of my favorite parts of Tangle.

— EJ, Binghamton, New York

Tangle: This is something I think about a lot! Honestly, I think in some ways we're already there. I'm about two weeks behind on reader feedback right now, which may not feel like a long time to readers but definitely feels like a long time to me. The days of responding to every email I get within a couple days are long gone, and last night I was going through reader feedback and writing back to some folks who had messaged me in June!

Still, I don't know that I'll ever abandon the practice completely (or just give it up). I carve out a couple hours every day to write to readers, and it is always time well spent. For starters, I learn a lot. Many of my readers are experts in niche fields, involved in politics themselves, work for the government, or have jobs and hobbies related to the topics I cover. I always learn when I spend a couple of hours reading the notes I get from people.

It's also a great way to take the pulse of the country. For example, I saw a ton of reader questions in the last few days about today's topic, the PACT Act, so I knew people were interested in it. That is super valuable information when I’m trying to decide what topics to cover. It is also a good gauge for where I am, personally. If I take a position where 90% of the responses I get are critical, I can deduce I may be far off to one side (given that my readership is pretty politically diverse). If I get a really healthy mix of criticism and praise, I can figure that maybe my position was more nuanced or moderate. That's always interesting to me, even if my goal is not necessarily to fall in the middle.

All that's to say: I think reader feedback is one of those things I want to keep as a core part of my job. As Tangle grows and expands, I suspect I'll delegate and hire for a lot of other roles before I stop replying to readers myself. In the meantime, you all might just have to be a little more patient with my replies!

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

For the first time ever, total U.S. household debt climbed past $16 trillion in the second quarter. The collective American IOU, as CNBC put it, climbed primarily due to rising mortgages and vehicle purchases, the costs of which are both way up thanks to inflation. “Americans are borrowing more, but a big part of the increased borrowing is attributable to higher prices,” the New York Fed said. Credit card balances are up 13% over the past year, the largest gain in 20 years. However, while debt is rising, delinquency has remained "relatively benign," with only 2.7% of outstanding debt in delinquency (2 percent lower than the first quarter of 2020, when the pandemic began). CNBC has the story.


Numbers.

  • 59% to 41%. The percentage of Kansas voters who voted against and for the amendment to strip abortion rights from the state constitution.
  • 940,000. The estimated number of Kansas voters who cast ballots in yesterday’s primaries and on the abortion referendum.
  • 473,438. The number of Kansas voters who voted in the 2018 primaries.
  • 1.05 million. The estimated number of Kansas voters who cast ballots in the 2018 midterms.
  • Six. The number of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump that have now retired or lost a primary race.
  • 77%. The percentage of voters who support caps on prescription drug prices, a key component of the Inflation Reduction Act, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

Have a nice day.

The House of Representatives passed the Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines (STREAM) Act by a 391 to 9 vote last week. The bill would guarantee new investments in abandoned mine clean up that would address acid mine drainage that seeps into waterways across the country. Coal mines that have been shuttered for decades are still polluting our waterways, but this bill aims to solve that problem. “Abandoned mines and their discharges into waterways threaten people and wildlife alike,” David Willms, senior director of Western wildlife and public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, said. “The STREAM Act is a common-sense, bipartisan proposal to reclaim and restore mining sites, protect clean drinking water, and support the nation’s $887 billion outdoor recreation economy." Appalachian Voices has the story.


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