Chairman Takano: "We are setting a new standard with the PACT Act."
“Let's pass this bill and ease the anxiety in the minds of our veterans who are living with cancer and other illnesses and terminal diseases and let them know that their families are going to be taken care of.”
Miguel R. Salazar (202) 779-1486
Miguel R. Salazar (202) 779-1486
Click here to watch Chairman Takano's full remarks.
Chairman Takano's remarks as prepared:
I stand before this chamber today in support of S.3373, as amended, which is now the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.
This measure addresses a technical drafting error in the Senate amendment to my PACT Act. As you know, the PACT Act passed the House with strong bipartisan support in March of this year.
Today, despite the current rancorous political debates taking place across America, this chamber has the chance to help the country heal after 20 years of war.
We have an opportunity to make good on the promise we made to our servicemembers when our country sent them into harm’s way: that we would take care of them – and pay for that care – when they come home.
For too long, veterans have faced an uphill battle to prove that the rare illnesses and cancers they were experiencing stemmed from their time in the military.
For too long, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been slow to accept responsibility and the cost of that care.
For too long, the United States has not made good on our promise to veterans.
But today, I make a plea for unity so that we may right this wrong and make good on our commitment to honor our pact with America’s veterans. Today, we can finally recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war.
In the past, we saw Vietnam War veterans, living with the effects of Agent Orange, fighting VA for the care and benefits they were due. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act was signed into law in 2019, but it came nearly four decades too late. This bill could have passed two years earlier when my friend, then-Republican Chairman Dr. Phil Roe was leading this Committee, but two Senators held up that bill. During that needless delay, many veterans succumbed to their illnesses and their families were not compensated. Now is our chance to make amends for that.
There is absolutely no reason for veterans and their survivors to fight VA for the care and benefits they’ve earned through their service. Never again should veterans be made to suffer the indignity of fighting their own government.
After Blue Water, I vowed that we would never again fail to live up to our promises to our veterans. That is why, at the beginning of the 117th Congress, I made addressing the effects of toxic exposure my top priority as Chairman.
Throughout our history, America has cast aside party affiliation on behalf of veterans, coming together to pass landmark legislation to properly recognize those who have served, such as in 1944 when Congress passed the GI Bill. The GI bill was transformational for a generation of veterans.
By 1956, nearly 8 million veterans had used the GI Bill’s education benefits and millions more still benefit from it today.
We have an opportunity to make a generational impact today. The PACT Act will directly affect one out of every five veterans, or 3.5 million people. It will also send a strong message to future generations of veterans, that America will take care of them when their service ends. The way this country has dealt with toxic exposure has been piecemeal and inadequate.
President Biden recognizes this too.
Shortly after he was sworn in, I met with the President about our shared priorities for veterans.
Upon learning of my goal to pass comprehensive legislation to help toxic-exposed veterans, the President leaned over to me and talked about his son, Beau, who served near burn pits in Iraq and Kosovo. It might be hard for most Americans to imagine what a burn pit looks like because they are illegal in the United States. Picture walking next to and breathing fumes from a burning pit the size of a football field. This pit contained everything from household trash and human waste to jet fuel and discarded equipment burning day and night. Beau lived right beside these burn pits and breathed the fumes that emanated from these pits.
President Biden believes that constant exposure to these burn pits – and the toxic fumes they emitted – led to Beau’s cancer and early death.
It was during that meeting when I knew I had a partner in the President.
At the State of the Union, President Biden called on Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to comprehensively address the effects of toxic exposure and improve the delivery of benefits for toxic-exposed veterans.
I cannot thank him enough for throwing his support behind this effort and placing those who have served our country at the center of his Unity Agenda.
To my colleagues who previously voted “no” on the PACT Act in March, I want to ask you the same question I asked you then: “Are you willing to support our troops and honor our nation’s promise to them?
Or will you allow naked partisanship to once again deny our veterans the care they deserve?”
Just this Congress alone, every single Democrat in this body has voted to make sure each day in uniform counts toward GI Bill benefits.
Every single Democrat voted to ensure a smooth transition from active duty to civilian life.
Every single Democrat voted to honor our pact with toxic-exposed veterans.
There is no question as to where Democrats stand on prioritizing America’s veterans. We are backing up our “thank you’s” with concrete action.
Frankly, all the bills I mentioned should have passed with unanimous support. If the American people knew the context of these bills, they would demand unanimous support from this chamber.
But, I want to take a moment now to recognize the Republicans in this chamber who put keeping our promise to veterans above partisanship. I want to thank the Republican cosponsors of this bill: Representatives Fitzpatrick and Cline.
Further, I recognize the 34 Republicans who in March showed their support for veterans by voting “yes” on final passage, including Veterans’ Affairs Committee members General Bergman and Representative Mace. I also recognize the commitment of Representatives Bilirakis and Kinzinger who do not serve on this Committee but demonstrated early leadership by supporting this legislation. And I am also glad to see my colleague, Ranking Member Bost, finally stand in support of this bill today.
Moreover, in June, an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 84 senators voted in favor of the PACT Act in the Senate. This proved the value of the cause and showed that it had momentum, so the trajectory of this effort is clear.
But here is also a very rare situation where there is a chance for redemption. For those of my Republican colleagues who previously hesitated, sat on the sidelines, or chose politics over veterans: you get a second chance to do the right thing. There is no reason why this time, this measure should not garner at least 400 votes in this chamber.
Why is it that a Republican leader and Whip, who aspire to be in the Majority, but do not now show the fortitude to govern, are continuing to oppose this bill and are asking you to do the same?
Do not let them stand in the way with unconvincing arguments about budgetary constraints when the true cost of war, the human cost of war, is abundantly clear.
For example, as the House considers the Defense Authorization bill this week - a bill that authorizes 838.8 BILLION dollars, spending that I think is justifiable – I am reminded of the stark reality of how this Congress approaches federal funding.
It has become a battle of defense spending versus everything else. That everything else includes veterans, school children, the elderly, our constituents. I vigorously object to veterans being pitted against their fellow Americans to fight for funding. Do we support veterans by limiting school lunches for children?
Do we support veterans by limiting help for Seniors? You can be damn sure our veterans didn’t sign up to serve our country, watch their families make sacrifices, or go to war far from home so that Members in this body could perpetuate a false choice that pits Americans against one another.
The right choice – our choice – is simple: recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war. Period.
Using hypocritical arguments about fiscal responsibility as a reason to oppose this bill when the truth of the MORAL responsibility of caring for veterans is made crystal clear, is not consistent with American values. Make no mistake - when our country goes to war we don’t nickel and dime the Department of Defense – and we shouldn’t try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the care for toxic-exposed veterans.
We don’t hear these arguments about needing offsets when we are asked – rightly – to support more body armor or protection from IEDs. This Congress steps up to the plate to provide our servicemembers with what they need to fight our wars.
So why are Members of this body arguing that we need to scrounge around to find money for our veterans? It is time for Congress to fully support toxic-exposed veterans as they fight rare cancers and illnesses after returning home.
I must also express dismay about the procedural steps we must take now because a single Senator is preventing the Senate from quickly fixing the technical issue in this bill.
This Senator, already having watched the bill pass the Senate the first time with strong support, knowing the veteran sacrifice behind it, and the blood, sweat and tears shed by the veteran community to finally, FINALLY, get this done, chose instead to object because he doesn’t like the funding mechanism in this bill.
His position is the losing one and he has held up this bill for no reason other than sour grapes; and to what end is unclear when veterans suffer in the meantime. Therefore, we Members of the House must take this route to push forward and do what we know is right.
The Honoring our PACT Act would not have been possible if it were not for the veterans who selflessly shared their stories, their pain, and their trauma, opening the eyes of their fellow Americans to the realities of being exposed to toxic substances.
Throughout this process I’ve met many toxic-exposed veterans whose sacrifice and courage continued long after they hung up their uniform. I am forever humbled by the courage of Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran who served near a burn pit in Fallujah who later fought VA for three years to get the care she needed.
She passed away this spring, but not before selflessly fighting for a comprehensive bill that would aid over 3.5 million veterans like her living with the effects of toxic exposure, a bill that she herself would not benefit from. We also honor the valor of Wesley Black, Heath Robinson, Jennifer Kepner, and others who are no longer with us.
This bill would also not have been possible without the support of over 40 Veteran Service Organizations. Each of these organizations understand that toxic-exposed veterans are still in the heat of battle. I thank them for their input and advocacy for the Honoring our PACT Act.
I also want to thank my staff who worked tirelessly to listen and engage with advocates and stakeholders, who spent countless hours drafting and redrafting this bill to get it right.
And I want to thank Speaker Pelosi for always being a tireless advocate for veterans, along with Majority Leader Hoyer.
Senate Majority Leader Schumer for his work with Senators Tester and Moran and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to pass this bill.
Jon Stewart and John Feal for keeping us accountable. And, most importantly, to the families of veterans who tragically lost their lives as a result of being exposed to toxic substances during their time in service – thank you for your sacrifices.
This legislative effort will help our veterans heal and it offers hope that our country can do the same. It sends a message to all Americans that their government will not allow their grievances to go unaddressed. It acknowledges the suffering endured by our Vietnam War veterans and demonstrates to them that we have learned from our mistakes – that their struggle was not in vain.
We are setting a new standard with the PACT Act. We're telling our veterans: the burden of proof is not on you, because of your sacrifice to our country, this Congress and the American people are giving you the benefit of the doubt you have earned.
Let's pass this bill and ease the anxiety in the minds of our veterans who are living with cancer and other illnesses and terminal diseases and let them know that their families are going to be taken care of. I believe this is what the American people want - and it’s what everyone in this chamber should want. It is what our veterans deserve, and it is the right thing to do.
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