First responders to the Sept. 11 attacks testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday, ahead of a vote to reauthorize a fund to compensate those harmed in the aftermath of the 2001 strike. Among those who addressed a House subcommittee was former late-night talk show host Jon Stewart, who shamed members. Among those absent was western Pennsylvania's Guy Reschenthaler.
This story was updated at 3:53 pm to reflect the commitee vote.
Reschenthaler is on record as supporting the bill Stewart was advocating for, which has broad bipartisan support. But Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 first responders, said victims deserved more attention Tuesday.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one – shameful," Stewart said. (His opening remarks can be watched in full from C-Span below.) “It’s an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution. 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.”
Many of the chairs in the chamber were expected to be empty. The room contains enough seats for the full House Judiciary committee, but the hearing was held by the smaller Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The House Judiciary office confirms that just two lawmakers who belong to that subcommittee were absent: Reschenthaler, who represents a swath of southwestern Pennsylvania, and California Democrat Eric Swalwell.
In a statement, Reschenthaler's office did not explain his absence. But it said he fully supports the reauthorizing the Victims Compensation Fund. The statement touted his cosponsorship of HB 1327, which would fund the program until 2090. Reschenthaler is among the 81 Republicans and 232 Democrats to cosponsor the legislation.
“He looks forward to voting for the bill [Wednesday] to ensure the first responders who were injured or sickened due to their brave actions on 9/11 receive the support they deserve," the statement said. The office did not respond to a follow-up query about where Reschenthaler was when Stewart testified Tuesday.
The Victim Compensation Fund provides support to those who were killed as a result of the attacks, or who were physically harmed during debris removal efforts in the aftermath. First responders, who worked for months to clear wreckage, inhaled toxic dust and contaminants on the sites. Many have since been diagnosed with or died from various forms of cancer. More than $3 billion in compensation has been awarded, most of which went to cover personal injury claims. The fund, which is set to expire in 2020, has been reauthorized twice, in 2010 and 2015.
Earlier this year, the VCF’s special master Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that the fund was running out of money and that there would be a “significant reductions in awards,” due to a “record number” of new claims in 2018. Bhattacharyya attributed the increase to factors including “the increased rates of serious illnesses suffered by members of the 9/11 community, the increasing number of deaths that can be attributed to 9/11 exposure, and the continued and important outreach efforts.”
“We can’t fund these programs, [Congress] can,” Stewart said on Tuesday. “Setting aside that no American in this country should face financial ruin because of a health issue, certainly 9/11 first responders shouldn’t have to decide whether to live or have a place to live.”
“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, what they gave to this country.’ Well, here they are. And where are [lawmakers]? It would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign, but it’s not. Your indifference costs these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of.”
The committee voted unanimously to advance the legislation Wednesday.