Comedian Jon Stewart blasts Congress over 'nearly empty' hearing for 9/11 victims fund

VIDEO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Comedian Jon Stewart took members of Congress to task on Tuesday (June 11), blasting the House Judiciary Committee for its low attendance at a hearing to discuss reauthorising the Sept 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Congress created the fund after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, to help anyone injured or sickened in the attacks or in the response process.

"As I sit here today, I can't help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting healthcare and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to," Mr Stewart told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress."

The firefighters, police officers and others came to the hearing despite illness and injuries, Mr Stewart said, but some members of the committee chose not to show up.

The first responders attended the hearing to advocate for the financial compensation they are due, Mr Stewart said.

"I'm sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic," said Mr Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

"But I'm angry and you should be, too."

He berated the lawmakers for what he called their "callous indifference" and "rank hypocrisy", campaigning on first responders' issues and commending their heroism, yet not acting in Congress to support them.

"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'," Mr Stewart said, then motioned to the crowd of first responders behind him. "Well, here they are."

The fund was most recently reactivated in 2015 as part of the reauthorisation of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides healthcare and financial assistance to first responders, volunteers and survivors.

The Victim Compensation Fund was supposed to allow people to submit claims until Dec 18, 2020, but the fund's leadership said in February that it would reduce awards because of "funding insufficiency".

Mr Stewart has been advocating for the Victim Compensation Fund since at least 2010, when he devoted nine minutes of The Daily Show to criticising members of Congress who opposed the Zadroga Act. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters at the time that Mr Stewart's activism may have caused "a breakthrough" on the issue.

SEARING TESTIMONY

Before Mr Stewart spoke on Tuesday, Mr Luis Alvarez, a former New York Police Department detective, was one of a number of seriously ill Ground Zero workers who gave searing testimony about their long-time battles with illnesses, their loved ones who have died, and their frustration with having to beg Congress to help.

Mr Alvarez said he had survived 68 rounds of chemotherapy to fight 9/11-related cancer, and would start his next round on Wednesday. Frail and struggling at times to speak, Mr Alvarez said he came to Capitol Hill on behalf of those who will get ill later and may get little or no aid from the fund.

"My life isn't worth more than the next responder to get cancer. My family's needs are not worth less than any others who have already died," said Mr Alvarez.

"This fund is not a ticket to paradise. It is there to provide for our families when we can't. Nothing more. You all said you would never forget. Well I'm here to make sure that you don't."

When he finished speaking, the hearing room erupted in applause, giving Mr Alvarez a standing ovation, as some in the room wiped away tears.

Addressing Congress afterwards, Mr Stewart did not speak from a written statement, like many who appear in front of committees tend to do. At times, the former late-night host raised his voice. He came close to crying. He begged the committee to take their issues seriously.

"They responded in five seconds - they did their jobs. With courage, grace, tenacity, humility," Mr Stewart said, tearing up and dropping his pen onto the desk. "Eighteen years later, do yours."

The first responders behind him rose to their feet, erupting into sustained applause as some lawmakers clapped slowly from their seats.

Democratic Representative Steve Cohen, the chairman of the subcommittee, pushed back against Mr Stewart's criticisms to defend Congress as "the bulwark of democracy" and added that other committee meetings take place at the same time.

"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," Mr Cohen said.

"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."

'A NICE-SOUNDING SLOGAN'

Mr Jimmy Kimmel, a popular comedian and host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, weighed in on Twitter: "Thank you Jon Stewart, for making sure 'never forget' isn't just a nice-sounding slogan."

As The Washington Post's reported: The 9/11 terrorist attacks have always been personal for Mr Stewart, who said in 2001 that he could see the World Trade Center from his apartment in Lower Manhattan.

Nine days after the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, Mr Stewart appeared behind his wooden desk on The Daily Show, stumbling at first to shirk the awkwardness that comes naturally with a late-night comedy show in the wake of the nation's most unfathomable tragedy. "Tonight's show is obviously not a regular show," he said.

Then came an unforgettable monologue.

"Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding... that is... that's extraordinary. And that's why we've already won," he said, his voice cracking.

"It's light. It's democracy. We've already won. They can't shut that down."