A day after comedian Jon Stewart chastised lawmakers for their sparse attendance at a hearing on legislation to help victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill without even calling a roll call vote, extending a victims fund for decades while offering whatever funding is needed.
Stewart and lawmakers representing the victims have expressed frustration with Congress’ pace in moving the legislation, even after the overseer of the victims fund, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced in February that she would have to cut payouts to victims for lack of money.
The full House and Senate still must pass the bill and President Donald Trump must sign it before victims can expect to receive the amounts Bhattacharyya sees as appropriate compensation. But if some lawmakers had concerns about providing unlimited funding, they disappeared at the Wednesday committee vote.
The number of victims requesting compensation has exploded in recent years as more first responders have gotten sick, believing their ailments are linked to toxins created when the World Trade Center towers fell and from the cleanup at the Pentagon.
Bhattacharyya said earlier this year that from 2011 to 2016, 19,000 people sought compensation. That figure was eclipsed in the following two years and in January of this year nearly 5,000 people sought payouts.
Congress created the fund 11 days after the attacks to help victims, while also shielding from liability the airlines whose planes were flown into the towers, the Pentagon and a field in southern Pennsylvania. The fund pays out different amounts based on a victim’s expected lifetime earnings had the victim not died or been rendered unable to work, and the size of the victim’s family. It operated for three years, then went dormant until 2011 when an outcry from victims prompted Congress to reopen it. It was reauthorized again in 2015.
Despite the unknown price tag, lawmakers praised the latest reauthorization measure for offering much-needed financial relief to thousands of first responders and others who are suffering from cancer and other health effects. Without a renewal of the program and new funding, some victims face cuts to their promised compensation of as much as 70 percent.
“People are still getting sick as diseases like cancer emerge after long latency periods,” Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said. “It is time for us to give responders and survivors peace of mind once and for all.”
The vote came one day after an emotional appeal from Stewart at a subcommittee hearing on the bill. Stewart, who has used his celebrity to draw public attention to the plight of cancer-stricken first responders, told lawmakers on June 11 it was “shameful” that more of them didn’t bother to show up for the sparsely attended hearing.
“Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders,” he said as he sat at the witness table. “And in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
James Lemonda, a New York City fire battalion chief who responded to ground zero on the day of the 2001 attacks, attended the vote to watch the committee approve a bill he said would be welcomed by thousands of survivors.
“For those who are stricken with illness, it makes all the difference in the world,” said Lemonda, president of the FDNY Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which represents about 7,400 active and retired New York firefighters. “You can never erase the pain from the loss of loved ones. But at least it relieves all the stress of the financial burden they have to go through.”
The bill, which has more than 300 co-sponsors, is likely to win swift passage in the full House in coming weeks. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer tweeted after the markup Wednesday that he planned to bring the measure to the floor before the August recess.
But that would require waiving a House pay-as-you-go rule aimed at curbing deficit spending, unless lawmakers can offset the bill’s price tag with cuts to other programs or tax increases. The Congressional Budget Office has not yet provided a cost estimate for the measure.
Under current law, payouts from the fund are capped at $7.38 billion and its authorization lapses Dec. 31, 2020. But fund officials had to reduce compensation for eligible recipients by up to 70 percent starting earlier this year due to new projections of heightened demand. By the end of May, $5.17 billion had already been paid out to more than 23,000 eligible recipients with thousands more under review and new claimants entering the pipeline each month.
Just restoring the recent benefit cuts and supporting upcoming awards could cost nearly $5 billion more than what’s available, according to fund officials. It’s not clear how much extending the program, uncapped, through fiscal 2090 would cost, but that could require billions more in the first decade alone.
A Senate version of the measure had 39 co-sponsors as of last week, including eight Republicans. Mitch McConnell said on June 11 he needed to review the House bill before promising floor action. But he added, “We’ve always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way.”
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer urged McConnell on June 12 to bring the bill up for a vote as soon as the House passes it. “These are our heroes, American heroes, who are suffering and need our help,” he said on the Senate floor.
And Schumer pleaded for treating the bill as stand-alone legislation instead of trying to attach it to a spending package or other must-pass legislation that risks getting bogged down in myriad policy disputes.
“It’s shameful that our brave first responders have had to suffer the indignity of delay after delay after delay of searching for some must-pass bill to tuck their issue into because this Congress — this Senate — didn’t think it was important enough to pass on its own,” Schumer said. “We are done with that. We are not doing this again. Not this time.”
While the compensation is needed, Lemonda said, it won’t erase the horror of a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people. “Unfortunately, we found a lot of body parts and things of that nature,” said Lemonda, who was off duty on Sept. 11 but scrambled to the site of the twin towers. “Everything was surreal. You really couldn’t recognize anything. Everything was pulverized.”
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this story.