WASHINGTON — Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” delivered powerful testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill, condemning legislators who failed to show up to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorizing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which is set to be drastically reduced, even as the number of claims rapidly grows.
“What an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” said Stewart, who has long made compensatory funding for 9/11 responders and victims’ families a personal cause. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
“I’m sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic,” Stewart added. “I am angry, and you should be too.”
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has 14 members, but fewer than half were present in the room at various points during the emotional hearing.
Among the absent for the majority of the hearing was Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was once an assiduous interrogator of Hillary Clinton and her supposed involvement in the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four dead.
“The bill is expected to pass with strong bipartisan support. The 9/11 first responders are heroes to whom our entire nation is indebted. Rep. Jordan did attend the hearing today and was disappointed he could not stay, in person, for the entire time,” Jordan spokesman Ian Fury told Yahoo News when asked why the congressman had not been in attendance for the bulk of the hearing.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who has been similarly aggressive in investigating President Trump’s potential ties to Russia, as well as alleged obstruction of justice related to those ties, was also a no-show. But Swalwell, who is running for president, is a cosponsor of H.R.1327, the Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.
What those not in attendance missed was powerful testimony from first responders, including a former New York Police Department bomb squad detective who was about to undergo his 69th round of chemotherapy.
That detective, Luis Alvarez, spoke in a halting, raspy voice. Sitting in his bomb squad jacket next to Stewart, he looked as if he had been reduced in stature by the colorectal cancer that has ravaged his body for the last two years. Though it is impossible to directly link the incidence of cancer to working at Ground Zero, the frequency and types of cancer afflicting first responders strongly suggest a correlation.
“I have been to many places in this world,” Alvarez said, “and done many things. But I can tell you that I did not want to be anywhere else but Ground Zero when I was there.”
Stewart, the final witness, spoke after Alvarez, using his time to castigate Congress for its inaction. Only about $2 billion remains in the VCF, and the fund’s general master, Rupa Bhattacharyya — who was also a witness on Tuesday morning — has said that it simply does not have the money to address 19,000 outstanding claims.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak — to no one,” Stewart continued. “Shameful. It's an embarrassment to the country, and it is a stain on this institution.”
Stewart was instrumental in the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010. The biggest champion of the bill on Capitol Hill was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator and a contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Some of the empty chairs — as both Democrats and Republicans pointed out — reflected the subcommittee’s relatively small size, relative to that of the full committee. Even so, those empty chairs were a potent symbol of what Stewart saw as indifference on the part of Congress, whose members reliably tweet out “Never Forget” messages on Sept. 11, but do little to enshrine that remembrance into extended medical coverage for first responders or support for families of the fallen.
Legislation proposed by Democratic New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Gillibrand would fund the VCF until 2090. But critics of that legislation, the Never Forget the Heroes Act, worry that it is irresponsible to promise payment so many years into the future. And while the bill is all but certain to pass the House, it will just as certainly meet resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I am optimistic about the 9/11 VCF bill moving through the House quickly, and the Senate should do the same,” Gillibrand told Yahoo News. “As the first responders so eloquently testified in the House today, they are sick, they are dying, and they shouldn’t have to keep coming back to Congress every five years just to receive basic decency for their sacrifice. This is all about political will and whether the Senate is willing to truly ‘never forget the heroes of 9/11.’ We can and should do the right thing now.”
The office of the Senate majority leader did not respond to a request for comment regarding the legislation’s prospects.
Outside, meanwhile, it was a perfect late-spring day in Washington, not unlike the late-summer one that, 18 years earlier, saw the nation suffer the worst terrorist attack in its history. In the hearing room, the rows of chairs reserved for the audience were largely claimed by members of the New York Fire Department and other first responders. The FDNY lost 343 members on 9/11. It has lost another 150 since then. Many of them have succumbed to illness resulting from breathing particulate matter that lingered in New York for months after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Outside the hearing room where Stewart and others delivered their testimony, firefighter Gerard Fitzgerald recounted to Yahoo News how his wife had woken him that fateful morning at the couple’s Brooklyn home following a night shift. She told him that an airplane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. He watched as the fire consumed the building’s upper floors. “Those guys are getting their asses kicked,” he remembered, thinking at the time of the firefighters who would have to contend with the blaze.
Then the second plane hit. Fitzgerald rushed to lower Manhattan, along with hundreds of other firefighters from New York City and surrounding municipalities. He worked until 5 the next morning, looking for survivors, slept a couple of hours, then returned to what would come to be known as “the pile.” The 24-hour shifts would go on for a month, while work on clearing debris from lower Manhattan would continue until the following spring.
Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, said that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe. She has since apologized for that assessment, which was countered by a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Daily News investigation that discovered that the particulate matter was highly toxic.
None of this, of course, was apparent to the men and women sifting through the burning wound in Manhattan. “We weren’t really thinking about it,” Fitzgerald told Yahoo News. “We didn’t have a lot of respiratory protection.”
Fitzgerald had worked in construction, and he knew that the World Trade Center had been the last major construction project in New York City to use asbestos, albeit only partially. When inhaled, asbestos can cause a type of lung cancer known as mesothelioma, which is among the strains of cancer that have befallen many of those who responded to 9/11.
“We did the best we could,” Fitzgerald said. He did not suffer any serious effects himself but knows of hundreds of other firefighters who have been stricken with either cancer or respiratory problems.
Showing his solidarity with the first responders was Democratic Rep. Max Rose, whose district, encompassing Staten Island and a part of Brooklyn, is home to many members of the uniformed services. Rose, who is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, sat in the audience. He has earned commitments from all Democratic first-term members of the House to vote for funding the VCF.
“When it comes to having the backs of the first responders and their families who were there for us on 9/11 and the days following, it’s not about politics — it’s about doing the right thing,” Rose told Yahoo News. He added, “I’m proud to join these heroic New Yorkers at today’s subcommittee hearing and to see the House taking real action to permanently renew and fully fund the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and hope to see the Senate follow suit with similar speed and urgency. Failure to do so is simply not an option.”
Stewart’s angry testimony had the effect of leading several of the legislators to make unambiguous commitments to see the VCF funded. “There are too few issues today that draw everybody in Congress together,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., the subcommittee’s ranking member. He promised that absent members of the Judiciary Committee would watch a recorded version of the hearing. “I can’t recall being so moved by testimony as I was today,” Johnson added.
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