McGovern’s ‘atomic veterans’ amendment to defense spending bill clears House

  • In this screenshot, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, speaks on the House floor on July 14, 2017 about atomic veterans. —C-SPAN

Published: 7/14/2017 11:38:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday unanimously passed an amendment sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, that honors service members exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons tests.

McGovern’s amendment honors around 225,000 so-called “atomic veterans,” who were exposed to high levels of radiation during atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 but were sworn to secrecy and unable to discuss their past exposure.

The amendment was attached to the House’s massive $696 billion defense policy bill that passed 344 to 81, with McGovern himself voting against it.

“A few years ago, I met with a number of constituents who are atomic veterans,” McGovern said. “These veterans have never been formally recognized for their service — there’s no ribbon, no medal, nothing from the Pentagon.”

After years of silence, President George H.W. Bush signed a compensation act for atomic veterans in 1990, and President Bill Clinton officially apologized for the treatment of atomic veterans in 1995.

McGovern’s provision, co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota, passed unanimously, but McGovern said that doesn’t necessarily mean it will pass the Senate. He said the Pentagon has influenced senators on the Armed Services Committee to strike the provision in previous years.

“Regrettably, the Pentagon remains silent on honoring the service of our atomic veterans, arguing that to do so would diminish the service of other military personnel who are tasked with dangerous missions.,” McGovern said in a speech on the House floor. “This is a pitiful excuse.”

Despite the fact that his own amendment was attached, however, McGovern ultimately voted against the spending bill, which far exceeds the $603 billion in defense spending that President Donald Trump requested and breaks a $549 billion cap on defense spending that was set in 2011.

Lawmakers will now have to either raise or repeal those budget caps.

“I tried to offer amendments to force a debate on the wars in Afghanistan, and Syria and Iraq, and they were all denied,” McGovern said, adding that he’s for funding for soldiers and veterans but ultimately had to vote against the cap-busting bill.

McGovern has previously spoken out against the sky-high amounts that the United States spends on war, including at a recent sit-down with residents of Rockridge Retirement Community.

A recent Brown University study found that from 2001 to 2016, the cost of Homeland Security and U.S. wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan was $3.6 trillion. Combined with the “dedicated war spending” the defense, state and homeland security departments requested for 2017, the study put the total budgetary cost of those wars at $4.79 trillion.

“We’re involved in multiple wars that seem to be endless,” McGovern told the Gazette on Friday. “I think we need to have discussion about what our true national defense needs are.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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