American comedian Jon Stewart has scolded the US Congress for failing to ensure that a victims’ compensation fund set up after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks never runs out of money.
Stewart, a long-time advocate for 9/11 responders, angrily called out politicians for failing to attend a hearing on a bill to ensure the fund could pay benefits for the next 70 years, calling their behaviour “an embarrassment to the country”.
The congressional hearing had been set up to discuss the bill that would compensate first responders to the 2001 terror attacks on New York’s twin towers who have since fallen ill.
Pointing to rows of empty seats at a House Judiciary Committee hearing room on Tuesday (US time), Stewart said “sick and dying” first responders and their families had come to Washington for the hearing, only to face a nearly deserted dais.
The sparse attendance by politicians was “an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution”, Stewart said.
He added that the “disrespect” shown to first responders to the terror attacks on New York’s twin towers who were suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses “is utterly unacceptable”.
Republican and Democrat politicians defended their lack of attendance, saying they supported the bill and were monitoring the hearing amid other congressional business.
But Stewart pointed to rows of uniformed firefighters and police officers sitting behind him, and said the hearing “should be flipped”, so that first responders were on the dais, with members of Congress “down here” in witness chairs answering their questions.
First and foremost, Stewart said, families want to know, “Why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long?”
Stewart and other speakers lamented the fact that, nearly 18 years after the attacks, first responders and their families still had no assurance the fund will not run out of money.
The Justice Department said in February that the fund was being depleted and that benefit payments are being cut by up to 70 percent.
“The plain fact is that we are expending the available funds more quickly than assumed, and there are many more claims than anticipated,” said Rupa Bhattacharyya, the fund’s special master.
A total of 835 awards have been reduced as of May 31, she said.
Stewart called that shameful.
“Your indifference is costing these men and women their most valuable commodity: time,” he told lawmakers. “It’s one thing they’re running out of.”
Firefighters, police and other first responders “did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity and humility”, Stewart said.
“Eighteen years later, do yours.”