Jon Stewart heads to Washington with 9/11 first responders to secure Victims Compensation Fund
Jon Stewart really hasn’t enjoyed his visits to Washington.
“I would say between, let’s say, eating ice cream in a lounge chair at a Knicks game versus hell, it tilted more toward the hell side,” Stewart said in an interview with the Daily News.
Still, the former “Daily Show” host is returning to Capitol Hill on Monday for the same reason he went nearly four years ago — thousands of 9/11 first responders, victims and their families are facing steep cuts to a program designed to help them, and Congress needs to act on their behalf.
In 2015, when the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was about to expire, Stewart walked the halls of Congress with first responders to win passage of a new law to aid cops, firefighters, volunteers and others sickened as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
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Congress relaunched the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund in 2015 with $7.375 billion to cover claims through December 2020. But $5 billion has already been given to more than 20,000 people suffering and dying from cancer, breathing problems and trauma stemming from the day terrorists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
On Feb. 15, the special master who administers the fund, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced that because the fund was running out of money due to an increase in death and cancer claims, it would cut payouts by half or more
First responders have had to make hundreds of visits to Capitol Hill offices, trundling along with canes, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, to get Congress to act. Stewart’s job is to shine a spotlight on their efforts.
The 2015 bill nearly faltered when various lawmakers tried to use it as leverage to pass less-popular items.
“I just hope that there's a sense of urgency, and that they can do it as a stand-alone [bill], and not have to worry about all this nonsense and all the horse trading,” Stewart said.
In the decade or so that Stewart has been working with responders, he’s grown close to many of them and stayed in touch. He delivered the eulogy for Firefighter Ray Pfeifer in 2017
Stewart watched as Pfeifer, dying from cancer, loaded wheelchairs, including one donated by a responder’s widow, and medications into vans to make lobbying trips with groups organized by 9/11 advocate John Feal.
The fact that people like Pfeifer had to go hat in hand to Congress is one of the reasons Stewart is going back.
“It's hard not to be angry. It's hard not to [be], I think dumbstruck and angry,” Stewart said. “You can't believe it's real. Like the idea that these guys, that Feal's loading guys up in a van that can carry wheelchairs so the guys with stage four cancer can come down and plead their case again -- it's embarrassing.”
Even so, dozens of them will fan out across congressional office buildings on Monday to plead their case.
In 2015, the question Stewart heard in every office he visited was: How are we going to pay for it? He thinks funding should have stopped being an issue when Republicans gained control of the government in 2016.
“As soon as they got power, the first thing they did was they gave a $1.5 trillion tax cut to the highest earners and they cut taxes on corporations,” Stewart said. “So don't talk to us about funding, and ‘pay-fors.’ ”
Lower-end estimates of how much advocates think it will cost to fully fund the Victims’ Compensation Fund start around $8 billion. That number caught Stewart’s attention on Feb. 15 when Bhattacharyya announced the cuts, shortly after Trump declared a national emergency to get a wall built on the United States’ southern border.
Trump has asked for $8 billion for a wall. He has said that so much money has come from the military and Congress for border security that he would have no trouble shifting funds to pay for the wall.
“At the same time, letters were going to families of first responders of 9/11 saying we are cutting your award,” Stewart said. “How do those two things exist in the same universe?”
The real emergency, Stewart said, involves the people who need assistance from the Victims Compensation Fund.
“How can we let them just struggle and suffer?” Stewart asked. “This is a real — a national emergency, if you will.”
While the famous comedian and filmmaker knows reporters and cameras will show up for him, he hopes they tell the stories of the men and women standing beside him.
“Then it becomes real to people,” Stewart said. “They realize that this is the struggle on the ground for the families of the people who we laud as heroes all the time.”
And maybe, for the first time since 9/11, Congress and the President will pass a law that finally allows these people to rest.
“When can they stop fighting?” Stewart asked. “If you think about the moment it happened, they were fighting, fighting to save as many people as they could. Afterward. they were fighting to find the remains of their brothers and sisters and family members to try and bring some peace to people.”
Then responders started getting sick, and they battled to convince officials that Detective James Zadroga, after whom the law was named and who had glass in his lungs, really died from 9/11.
“These guys have had to fight their own government, over and over again, while watching tributes to their bravery and heroism, [while] everybody waves the flag for them but doesn’t deliver when they need it,” Stewart said.
He wants this time to be different.
“I hope it's not just seen as part of the cyclical theater of this place,” Stewart said. “That they are able to view it with the right amount of urgency. And sincerity.”