Jon Stewart lashes out at Congress over 9/11 victims fund

The comedian accused politicians of disrespecting firefighters and police officers who responded

US comedian Jon Stewart lambasted Congress on Tuesday over its handling of a victims' compensation fund set up after the 9/11 attacks.

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 can pay benefits for the next 70 years.

Pointing to rows of empty seats at a House Judiciary Committee hearing room, Mr Stewart said "sick and dying" first responders and their families came to Washington for the hearing, only to find a handful of politicians present.

“It’s an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution," he said. "You should be ashamed of yourselves, for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be. Because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.”

Politicians from both parties said they support the bill and were monitoring the hearing amid other congressional business.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., predicted the bill will pass with overwhelming support and said politicians meant no disrespect as they moved in and out of the subcommittee hearing, a common occurrence on Capitol Hill.

Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, was unconvinced. “It would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign, but it’s not," he said.

"This hearing should be flipped. These men and women should be up on that stage, and Congress should be down here answering their questions as to why this is so hard and takes so damn long.”

The collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001 sent a cloud of thick dust billowing over Lower Manhattan. Fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.

In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.

More than 40,000 people have applied to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the attacks. More than $5 billion (Dh18.4m) in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.

Stewart and other speakers lamented the fact that nearly 18 years after the attacks, first responders and their families still have no assurance the fund will not run out of money.

The Justice Department said in February that the fund is being depleted and that benefit payments are being cut by up to 70 per cent.

"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.

Mr 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."

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat whose district includes the World Trade Center site, said a 70 per cent cut – or any cut – in compensation to victims of 9/11 "is simply intolerable, and Congress must not allow it".

Just as Americans "stood together as a nation in the days following September 11, 2001, and just as we stood together in 2010 and 2015 to authorise and fund these vital programmes, we must now join forces one more time to ensure that the heroes of 9/11 are not abandoned when they need us most," Mr Nadler said.

Updated: June 12, 2019 01:26 PM

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