How Jon Stewart Became a Fierce Advocate for 9/11 Responders
Jon Stewart, speaking on Capitol Hill about the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, was not the cool, detached comedian that television viewers are accustomed to.
Instead, faced with empty seats as he spoke on Tuesday to a House Judiciary subcommittee about a bill to secure funding for ailingSept. 11 victims, the former host of “The Daily Show” was outraged, at times pounding his fist on the table, shouting at lawmakers and choking up as he came close to tears.
“It’s an embarrassment to the country,” Mr. Stewart said, criticizing members of Congress for skipping the hearing.
“And you should be ashamed of yourselves,” he scolded.
The day after Mr. Stewart’s emotional rebuke, the full House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the House floor for consideration.
Mr. Stewart’s impassioned speech, which quickly spread on television networks and social media, was only his latest effort in years of fervent advocacy on the behalf of Sept. 11 victims, emergency personnel and others who responded to the scene.
Why was he testifying in Washington?
A fund that Congress created to help people injured or made ill in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks is running out of money, and a bill was proposed to extend the fund’s life.
Congress first created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in 2001 to provide money to the families of people who died or were injured when the World Trade Center’s twin towers collapsed in a terrorist attack. (The fund was intended, in part, to limit lawsuits against airlines and other entities.)
The fund stopped operating in 2004, as planned. But in 2010, lawmakers pushed to reauthorize it, this time to provide medical care and financial aid to emergency personnel, volunteers and survivors who inhaled toxic dust, smoke and fumes at the site of the attack.
The fund began processing claims again in 2011 and was most recently renewed in 2015. Since 2011, Congress has appropriated about $7.4 billion to the fund.
What’s the issue now?
When Congress reauthorized the bill, it extended the Victim Compensation Fund to allow claims to be submitted until December 2020.
But in February, the Justice Department said that the fund was quickly being depleted, and that it likely did not have enough money to pay all of its pending and expected claims.
Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master who oversees the fund, said then that future payments would have to be reduced by as much as 70 percent.
So far, more than 800 awards have been reduced, Ms. Bhattacharyya said on Tuesday.
How did Mr. Stewart get involved?
For Mr. Stewart, a longtime New Yorker, the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath have been deeply personal for years.
In the first episode of “The Daily Show” after the attacks, Mr. Stewart spoke emotionally about the attacks, describing how he was able to see the World Trade Center from his apartment.
“Now it’s gone, and they attacked it,” he said through tears. “This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce — and it is gone.”
It is unclear exactly when Mr. Stewart, who declined to comment for this article, began lobbying on behalf of Sept. 11 victims. But in 2010, he devoted an episode of “The Daily Show” to a then-stalled bill that sought to reopen the Victim Compensation Fund.
In the episode, Mr. Stewart interviewed a panel of four men who responded to the attacks. He blasted Republicans who filibustered the bill, then criticized TV news networks, saying that they had failed to report on the issue.
The bill ultimately passed, and several politicians, including then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, credited Mr. Stewart’s efforts with changing the tide.
What has Mr. Stewart done recently?
Over time, Mr. Stewart has become one of the loudest voices pushing Congress to provide more money to cover the health care of those who risked their lives responding to the attacks.
He has denounced Congress’s inaction every time the fund has seemed at risk. In 2015, when the fund needed to be reauthorized, he returned to “The Daily Show” to push Congress to extend the fund’s life.
After it was announced that the fund was rapidly diminishing this year, Mr. Stewart embarked on a media blitz. He did interviews on major news networks, where he appeared with emergency personnel to draw attention to the issue.
He also met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and appeared at a news conference with New York’s senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, when they called for the fund to be extended.
“It’s Congress’s job to fund it properly and let these people live in peace,” he said at the time.
What did he say on Tuesday?
Mr. Stewart admonished Congress on Tuesday, saying it allowed the fund to run low and failed to secure enough money to pay benefits.
The victims and their families, he said, wanted to know why “this is so damn hard and takes so damn long.”
At a hearing of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Mr. Stewart urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow the fund to pay benefits for the next 70 years.
“Why this bill is not unanimous consent is beyond my comprehension,” he said.
He also expressed disgust with what he viewed as poor attendance at the hearing, noting that although sick emergency personnel and their families had made the trip to Washington, most of the seats in front of them were 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,” Mr. Stewart said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
The subcommittee’s chair, Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said the hearing appeared poorly attended only because of the room it was being held in.
The subcommittee’s top Republican member, Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, told Mr. Stewart that lawmakers intended no disrespect, suggesting that they were moving in and out of the hearing, which is common in Congress.
A spokesman has since said that only two members of the 14-person subcommittee were absent on Tuesday.
The Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to move the Never Forget the Heroes Act, which would extend the Victim Compensation Fund through 2090, to the full House.
The bill, which has 312 lawmakers co-sponsoring it, is expected to pass a House vote. It would still need to be taken up and approved in the Senate.
“This bill is about fulfilling our promise to ‘Never Forget,’” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, a Democrat who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said in a statement. “And we won’t stop fighting until we guarantee that this program will be there for anyone and everyone who needs it.”