Nine years ago, benefits were extended to emergency personnel, volunteers and survivors sickened because they inhaled toxic dust, smoke and fumes at Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 attacks.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department notified the sick responders that the fund was running out of money and benefits would be reduced by as much as 70 percent. So far, 800 awards have been reduced.
What’s even worse is that Congress has repeatedly dragged its feet in making sure the medical needs of the first responders are taken care of.On Tuesday, 9/11 responders showed up in force at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties along with Jon Stewart, the comedian and former host of “The Daily Show.”
What they found was mostly empty seats in front of them as subcommittee members trickled in and out while attending other meetings.
We’re used to grandstanding at congressional hearings, but Stewart’s address showed the power of a message when it comes from the heart.
It showed the importance of listening when a message is based on morality, honesty and doing the right thing instead of political talking points.
Stewart spoke for nine minutes. We urge you to read his words this morning because what he said was important and a microcosm of Congress’s failure to do its job:
“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think 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. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. It’s an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution. And you should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here. But you won’t be, because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.
“We don’t want to be here. Lou (9/11 responder Alvarez) doesn’t want to be here. None of these people want to be here. But they are, and they are not here for themselves. They are here to continue fighting for what’s right. Lou (Alvarez) is going to go back for his 69th chemo. The great Ray Pfeifer would come down here, his body riddled with cancer where he couldn’t walk, and the disrespect shown to him and the other lobbyists on this bill is utterly unacceptable.
“Five seconds. That’s how long it took for FDNY, for NYPD, for Port Authority, for EMS to respond to an urgent need from the public. Five seconds. Hundreds died in an instant. Thousands more poured in to continue to fight for their brothers and sisters.
“Breathing problems started almost immediately. They were told they weren’t sick, they were crazy.
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“Then, as the illnesses got worse, ‘Yeah you’re sick but it is not from the pile.’ But then when the science became irrefutable, ‘OK, it’s the pile. This is a New York issue. I don’t know if we have the money.’ And If I sound angry and undiplomatic, I am angry and you should be too. And they are angry as well, and they have every justification to be that way.
“There is not a person here, there is not an empty chair on that stage that didn’t tweet out ‘Never forget the heroes of 9/11.’
“Never forget their bravery, never forget what they did. Never forget what they gave to this county. Well, here they are and where are they? And it would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy was benign but it is not. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity — time. One thing they are running out of.
“This hearing should be flipped. This hearing should be flipped. These men and woman should be up on that stage and Congress should be down here and answering their questions of why this is so damn hard and why it takes so damn long. No matter what they get, something is always pulled back and they have to come back.
“More of these men and women are going to get sick and they’re going to die, and I’m awfully tired of hearing this is a 9/11 New York issue. Al-Qaeda didn’t shout ‘Death to Tribeca.’ They attacked America. And these men and women and their response to it is what brought our country back. It’s what gave a reeling nation a solid foundation, something to stand back upon to remind us why this country is great and why this country is worth fighting for, and you’re ignoring them.
“You could end it tomorrow. Why this bill is not unanimous consent and a stand-alone issue is behind my comprehension and I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation.
“They responded in five seconds. They did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility.
“Eighteen years later — Do yours.”
Jon Stewart said it perfectly for all Americans.
On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee voted to move the “Never Forget the Heroes Act” forward for a full vote of the house.
It’s about time. Now Congress needs to pass it.