Clyburn: The PACT Act fulfills our obligation to veterans

The United States has long been described as a nation of ideas.  The founding fathers wrote that “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence…mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” This closing line of the Declaration of Independence underscored that the founders of this great country were willing to put their lives on the line to protect the God-given freedoms we continue to hold dear. Today, our brave servicemembers carry on that torch, entering dangerous circumstances to secure our unalienable rights.

In return, we have a solemn responsibility to prepare those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they return home. This is a promise we have not always kept.  And the impacts have often been devastating. But Democrats, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, are taking giant steps to right these wrongs and fulfill this sacred obligation.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military engaged in an aggressive chemical warfare program, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, to eliminate forest cover and destroy crops attempting to gain military advantage over North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. More than 20 million gallons of various herbicides doused roads, rivers, rice paddies, and farmland across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, causing massive environmental devastation. Several herbicides were manufactured, commonly referred to as Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent White, Agent Blue, and the most widely used, Agent Orange.

When American troops began returning home after the war, many of them and their families began reporting strange symptoms and afflictions, from painful rashes to miscarriages, birth defects, cancers, and varying diseases. In 1988, Operation Ranch Hand scientist and Air Force researcher Dr. James Clary wrote to Senator Tom Daschle that “when we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. However, none of us were overly concerned because the material was to be used on the enemy. We never considered a scenario in which our personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”

Dioxin, the dangerous byproduct produced by herbicides, was found in all herbicides used in Vietnam. It is also the byproduct of trash incineration or burn pits. Doctors raised concerns about the impacts of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan as early as 2004 but were publicly ignored by the U.S. government and military. The Department of Defense has since closed out most burn pits and plans to close out those that remain, but they have already caused significant harm to our veterans.

Last year, under the leadership of President Biden, Congress finally acted to address these harms. August 10, 2023, marks 1 year since the Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was signed into law—the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits in decades.

This law significantly expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. Since the PACT Act was enacted, more than 785,000 veterans have applied or submitted claims for PACT Act-related benefits, and more than 4.1 million have undergone screening for toxic substance exposure. The PACT Act also helps the VA be more responsive to veterans’ needs. It authorizes the VA to expand their workforce and construct 31 new VA facilities across the country to meet the growing demand for services and care. The outdated system of determining presumptive status for medical conditions has been modernized, and the VA will conduct research to better understand veterans’ health trends. To detect early signs of toxic exposure-related diseases, the VA has started proactively screening every enrolled veteran for poisonous exposure and will provide follow-up screenings every five years.

We must continue to honor our veterans by providing them with the care and support they need to live safe, healthy lives after they return home. One year after President Biden signed it into law, it is clear the PACT Act is delivering on this sacred commitment.

 The Recovery Act applied the 10-20-30 formula to three rural development accounts: the Rural Community Facilities Program Account, the Rural Business Program Account, and the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program Account.

The results were impressive. According to the USDA, the 10-20-30 formula was responsible for funding 4,655 projects totaling nearly $1.7 billion in persistent poverty counties.  These projects ranged from drinking water infrastructure in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, to a public safety building in New Madrid County, Missouri, to a “green” administration building for a tribal housing authority in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

We increased the number of accounts subject to the 10-20-30 formula from the 3 in the Recovery Act to 15 for the past several years.  Billions of federal dollars have been invested under these provisions, and the benefits have continued. Funded by a USDA Community Facilities Grant, the Bamberg-Barnwell Emergency Medical Center opened in 2019 in rural South Carolina, filling an essential need in two communities where two hospitals had closed in 2012 and 2016.

Roosevelt County Electric Cooperative in New Mexico took advantage of the formula to improve reliability and affordability, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians received a $1.4 million water and waste disposal grant to improve the water infrastructure on their reservation.

A more recent investment by the Economic Development Administration at the Department of Commerce illustrates the promise of these targeted investments in persistent poverty counties. An EDA grant of nearly $4 million was awarded to Panola County, Mississippi, to support the county, and I’m quoting the Department, “with renovating a former outlet mall building for use as a workforce training center that will serve North Mississippi.” That is what the 10-20-30 formula is all about.

Our work to target funds to distressed communities has not stopped with the 10-20-30 formula focused on persistent poverty counties. We recognize that county poverty rates are not necessarily the best metric by which to assess the level of need in urban areas, so we have set aside funds for both persistent poverty counties and high-poverty census tracts, including in the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grant program. Late last month, a $22.8 million RAISE grant was awarded to build a pedestrian bridge and multi-modal transit hub in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to connect downtown with surrounding neighborhoods and two HBCUs, South Carolina State and Claflin. This investment will be transformational for that community.

We have been working to target resources to communities in need across the entire federal government while recognizing that different targeting measures will work better for different programs. Last Congress, we developed and introduced the Targeting Resources to Communities in Need Act, which would direct the Office of Management and Budget to work with agencies to take steps to better target funds to struggling communities and report to Congress on the steps that they have taken and the results that they have had.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and I introduced this legislation on a bipartisan basis last year with Hal Rogers (R-KY-05) in the House and Rob Portman (R-OH) in the Senate. It passed the House and was marked up in the Senate. It came up just short of being enacted into law, but our work continues. We have achieved remarkable progress. We cannot help struggling Americans unless we help the communities they call home.

We have a president of the United States who understands that. His vision of a country where “every American willing to work hard should be able to say where they grew up and stay where they grew up” is within reach.

(James E. Clyburn (SC-06) is Assistant Democratic Leader)



About Post Author


From the Web