On Tuesday, comedian, former host of The Daily Show, and longtime advocate of 9/11 first responders Jon Stewart ripped into Congress for failing to address the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund and ensure it doesn’t run out of money. Only five of the 14 lawmakers set to attend the hearing were present, a point that Stewart didn’t overlook during his tongue-lashing.
The hearing was meant to hear the victims’ appeal for additional financial support for the fund, ensuring that benefits would be available for the next 70 years, according to a report by the Daily Mail.
The Zadroga Act was meant to extend medical coverage for 9/11 first responders until 2090. However, the funds are being rapidly depleted, prompting Stewart, victims, and their families to appeal to Congress for additional funding.
Stewart, 56, gestured to the empty seats that should have been occupied by lawmakers in the subcommittee hearing room, saying that “sick and dying” first responders and their family members came to the nation’s capital only to be faced with a nearly empty hearing room.
“A filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me a nearly empty Congress,” said Stewart as he fought back tears. “Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country, and it is a stain on this institution.”
Stewart’s speech was equal parts heartbreaking and damning, and earned a standing ovation from the first responders in attendance.
A $7.3 billion fund had been created to compensate 9/11 victims and their families, including first responders and the families of those who lost their lives. That fund is already facing a critical shortfall. With $5 billion in claims already paid out and an additional $5 billion in pending claims, families and advocates say that additional funds are critical.
At one point, lawmakers suggested paying out claims at a rate of only half of their value, a move that sparked a near-immediate backlash.
In February, the Justice Department stated that since the fund is being depleted rapidly, payments would be cut by up to 70 percent.
Stewart noted that the “disrespect” shown to the first responders “is utterly unacceptable.” He added that the families of the victims want to know, “why is this so damn hard and takes so damn long?” Stewart also suggested that first responders should be the ones on the dais and that Congress should be the witnesses answering questions about the situation.
Stewart and other speakers discussed how, even 18 years after the 9/11 attacks, victims have no assurance that the fund designed to help won’t run out of money.
While many lawmakers predict that the bill to provide more funding will pass and assert it has bipartisan support, precisely when the issue will be formally addressed is unclear.