WASHINGTON — Former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart gave emotional testimony before a House panel on Tuesday as he called on Congress to reauthorize a fund that compensates victims of 9/11 and their families.
The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) was created after 9/11 to help pay for medical and economic losses as a result of the terrorist attacks — 18 years later, it’s running out of money and has to make steep cuts to its payments unless it’s reauthorized.
The House Judiciary Committee heard from Stewart and 9/11 first responders who pleaded with the body to permanently reauthorize the fund.
Stewart, long an advocate for those who responded to the 9/11 attacks, slammed Congress for failing to reauthorize the program earlier.
“It would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign," he said. "But it’s not. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time….the one thing they’re running out of."
"Shameful," he continued. "It is an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution."
Stewart teared up at the end of his opening remarks as he addressed the panel directly.
“(The first responders) responded in five seconds. They did their jobs — with courage, grace, tenacity, humility. 18 years later, do yours!" he said.
Stewart’s testimony drew a standing ovation in the crowded hearing room.
The latest iteration fund was initially allocated a maximum of about $7.4 billion. But in February 2019, the fund started to run out of money, having already exhausted $5 billion of its allocation. As a result, the fund had been forced to make cuts to its compensation to victims unless it is replenished.
Outstanding claims would be paid at 50% of their original value, according to the fund's website, and any claims filed after February 2019 would be paid at 30% of their original claim value — changes potentially affecting thousands of people.
“Given my determination of insufficient funding, the law required me to modify VCF policies and procedures so as to ensure that the VCF does not obligate funds beyond its appropriation. This meant that the VCF needed to make significant reductions in awards,” Rupa Bhattacharyya, who administers the fund, told the committee.
The VCF says that at the end of May, there were 16,715 eligibility claims still being processed. The average compensation amount was about $243,000, and the highest amount so far was a $4.1 million claim.
Advocates argue, though, that a price can’t be put on the victims’ health claims.
Retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 first responder Luis Alvarez told the panel, "Less than 24 hours from now I will be starting my 69th round of chemotherapy, yeah, you heard that correctly…I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else.”
Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New Yorker who chairs the committee, called for the fund to be reauthorized.
"A 70% cut in compensation to victims of 9/11 is simply intolerable, and Congress must not allow it," he said. "Congress also must not allow the VCF to expire while people are still sick and the World Trade Center Health Program is still operational."
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., appeared taken aback by the testimony, saying “I’ve been in politics a while, and I haven’t ever heard testimony like this."
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a markup on H.R. 1327, “Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” which would reauthorize the fund and remove its spending caps until 2089, on Wednesday. The bill currently has 306 bipartisan cosponsors and is expected to pass.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Stewart, first responders, give emotional testimony before Congress on 9/11 victim fund