Although the country is speckled today with events remembering what happened 14 years ago at the World Trade Center, one memorial of sorts is being saved for next week. Dozens of people will gather at the Capitol to commemorate the life of James Zadroga, the 9/11 first responder who died from a respiratory disease in 2006, and all other rescuers who have died in the past decade; there, they’ll also try to pressure Congress to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the law that helps compensate and pay for the health care of 9/11 survivors and first responders that will begin to expire soon.
The section of the law that helps pay for the ongoing treatment of first responders and survivors dealing with chronic diseases or respiratory disorders will expire at the end of the month. A year later, a nearly $3 billion fund — one that helps compensate those who have suffered economic losses because of injuries that happened at Ground Zero or maladies that came later — will also expire. If the law isn’t reauthorized soon, the many people depending on it will probably receive letters from the government in the coming months telling them the program has ended, leaving them impossibly worried about how they will pay for impending or ongoing medical expenses.
Jon Stewart, who invited first responders suffering from illnesses to The Daily Show in 2010 — a move that is credited with helping guilt-trip Congress into passing the law in the first place — will join the survivors, firefighters, and police officers lobbying at the Capitol next week.
Stewart talked to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about the law and the approaching deadline earlier this summer, saying it was “insane” that the act hadn’t already been reauthorized — not just for five years, but forever. “This one, honestly, is the most galling example of a legislature removed from the purpose of their job and the patriotism flag that they wave wholeheartedly when it serves their needs,” Stewart said.
“It’s unacceptable that first responders, survivors and their families have to come down to Washington and lobby Congress to do the right thing,” Gillibrand said in a statement today. “These programs are literally saving lives, and should be permanently extended so we avoid these expiration crises. This is a widely bipartisan bill that should have the support of every member of Congress who has sworn to never forget 9/11.”
Next week will be far from the first time supporters of the extension have talked about renewing the Zadroga Act. Last September, Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York legislators said the bill should be extended for the next 25 years so Congress doesn’t need to keep reprising this battle. “When my father came home from World War II, when my wife’s father came home from World War II they were gonna get the GI Bill. Why is there a question?” de Blasio said. Over the past year, New York legislators and first responders continued to hold events on the reauthorization bill, saying that “people will die” if it wasn’t extended.
Despite the months of advocacy, the relentless reminders from New York legislators, the long list of bipartisan co-sponsors — 129 in the House and 30 in the Senate, including Senator Tom Cotton — and the emotional testimony of many first responders, the reauthorization bill still hasn’t been considered by Congress. And the rest of the month is going to be insanely busy for legislators, given the House’s determination to continue talking about the Iran deal and the need to avoid a government shutdown. That doesn’t mean the bill won’t get passed — just that Congress has shown a remarkable knack, once again, for reckless procrastination.
On the other hand, the Zadroga Act didn’t get passed until the last possible moment the first time Congress considered it, making it through the Senate three days before Christmas after extensive squabbling about how expensive the bill was. The eventual bill that passed appropriated far less money than the first bill considered. “Some have tried to portray this debate as a debate between those who support 9/11 workers and those who don’t,” then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said at the time. “This is a gross distortion of the facts. There was never any doubt about supporting the first responders. It was about doing it right.”
Many 2016 candidates have been asked about the Zadroga Act reauthorization. Hillary Clinton, who sponsored the legislation back when she was a senator, unsurprisingly supports the extension. Senator Bernie Sanders is a co-sponsor of the current reauthorization bill. The four Republican senators running — the only other candidates besides Sanders who have an opportunity to influence the law’s fate — have not said whether they support the extension or are still thinking about it, according to the Huffington Post. However, they did tweet about those who lost their lives because of 9/11 on Friday.