America is used to seeing Jon Stewart make people laugh. Even when he was skewering powerful figures and discussing serious issues as host of “The Daily Show,” his message was delivered primarily through humor.
There was nothing funny, however, in Stewart’s Congressional takedown last week.
In retirement, the former Comedy Central host has ditched the satire for a different approach: righteous indignation. Last Tuesday, in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee, Stewart tore into Congress for its handling of funding for 9/11 first responders. And for good reason.
Current funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides benefits to 9/11 victims, first responders and their family members, is set to expire in 2020. And on top of that looming deadline, administrators determined earlier this year that insufficient funding required a “significant reductions in awards.”
As this situation continues to unfold, Stewart made it clear last week that he and the first responders he’s been advocating for feel unheard in the halls of Congress. He took issue with the subcommittee attendance at the hearing where he testified, noting that the audience was packed with first responders and their supporters while many seats on the committee dias sat empty.
“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,” Stewart said in his statement, as reported by Fox News. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders; and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
Stewart was speaking to the 14-member Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. At the time of his remarks, there were, by our count, seven members of the subcommittee present and listening to his testimony.
By warped Congressional standards — where committee members dart in and out of hearings between other scheduling commitments, and rousing floor speeches are often given to empty chambers — 50 percent subcommittee attendance during Stewart’s remarks actually isn’t that bad. And based on a committee staff statement provided to Fox, all but two of the 14 members attended the hearing at some point.
“Some members are in their offices visiting with constituents, or they may be watching on television, because this is broadcast … Our attendance was pretty good,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee who chairs the subcommittee. “All these empty chairs, that’s because it’s for the full committee. It’s not because of disrespect or lack of attention to you.”
With that context, Stewart’s criticism of the subcommittee specifically may be slightly over-the-top. But we don’t blame him, because beyond the issue of time management, there is clearly a sense within the 9/11 first responders community that their concerns are not being prioritized. And that is the real outrage here. The concern should be less about whether members of Congress arrange their schedules to hear testimony from a former TV show host, and more about whether political rhetoric is matched by action.
“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, what they gave to this country,” Stewart testified. “Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of.”
Fiscal realities don’t go out the window, even for a program like the 9/11 compensation fund which should be a no-brainer to fund. But as Stewart pointed out, it’s Congress’ job to set priorities and figure out how to make valuable investments for the public good. And this program certainly fits the bill.
As Stewart pointed out to lawmakers, and everyone watching at home, taking care of the heroes from 9/11 is not a problem for New York to tackle on its own. This is a decidedly national responsibility.
“Al-Qaida didn’t shout ‘death to Tribeca.’ They attacked America,” Stewart told the members of Congress.” And these men and women, and their response to it, is what brought our country back.”
The general sense is that the fund reauthorization will eventually pass. The House Judiciary Committee advanced it the day after Stewart’s testimony. But 9/11 first responders shouldn’t have to work so hard to be heard.