House leaders finally see duty
It appears that a dose of political reality has clarified the thinking of U.S. House leaders who initially opposed a compensation plan for nuclear weapons plant workers made ill by exposure to radiation and hazardous chemicals.
The compensation program was pronounced dead in a House-Senate conference committee on Monday, but it was quickly revived after Democrats and Republicans joined in blasting GOP House leaders for opposing it.
By Friday it appeared conferees were on the verge of approving a compromise version of the measure, which would cover sick workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and other Department of Energy facilities.
First District Congressman Ed Whitfield, who co-sponsored the House bill on health benefits for nuclear workers, said Friday afternoon there was a "90 percent" chance a compensation plan would emerge from Congress.
A hope is that the House committee chairmen who grumbled about the cost of compensating the workers have finally recognized that it's the right thing to do. Plant workers who lost their health helping the nation win the Cold War deserve substantial aid from the government that put them in jeopardy.
Workers in Paducah were exposed without their knowledge to highly radioactive substances and beryllium, a toxic metal. The federal government has an ethical obligation to take care of those who became ill because they faithfully performed their assigned tasks.
House leaders should have instinctively understood this obligation, but they were too wrapped up in the budget numbers to grasp that $1.7 billion — the estimated 10-year cost of the compensation program — was a small price to pay to restore the integrity of the federal government.
To put the cost of the program in perspective, consider that Congress is poised to increase inflation-adjusted federal spending by at least $28 billion this year. One can be sure that most, if not all, of this additional spending lacks the moral justification of the compensation plan for sick nuclear plant workers.
Keep in mind that the same leaders who worry that the compensation program represents a new entitlement are willing to spend a minimum of $159 billion over the next 10 years to add a prescription drug benefit to the massive Medicare entitlement program.
The political math is obvious: Medicare has about 39 million beneficiaries while the compensation program would serve at most 4,000 workers.
Even so, House leaders discovered the compensation issue packs a political wallop in this critical election year.
The reality is that denying benefits to sick workers could tip the balance in the struggle for control of the House. The compensation program affects districts in several swing states, including Kentucky and Ohio. A pickup of a handful of seats in these states would allow the Democrats to regain the majority they lost in 1994.
That point isn't lost on Whitfield, who's fighting to keep his seat in a district where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans. Whitfield and other Republicans in states with DOE facilities pushed hard to keep the compensation bill alive.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, harshly criticized House Republican leaders for balking on approving the health benefits. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a version of the compensation plan this summer.
Three Republican governors — George Ryan of Illinois, Don Sundquist of Tennessee and Bob Taft of Ohio — joined two Democrats — Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton and Jim Hodges of South Carolina — in producing a letter calling on Congress to help these "loyal, hardworking Americans."
Republican leaders who initially opposed the compensation package were losing on grounds of politics and principle.
Now they need to give their full approval to the plan, thus proving to voters that that they recognize that some federal spending is absolutely essential.