Former host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" Jon Stewart took a vastly different tone than his usual satirical shtick when he spoke Tuesday on Capitol Hill about the need to reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. The measure aims to provide health care benefits to first responders and others in the community with illnesses related to the 2001 terror attacks, but it's running short of money.
In his emotional testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Stewart at times broke down in tears, shouting at the lawmakers and calling them "shameful."
"I can't help what think what an incredible metaphor this room is... a filled room of 9/11 first responders and front on me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one... shameful," said Stewart at the outset of his remarks. A little over half of the 14-member subcommittee members were present, mostly Democrats.
Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010, over opposition from some Republicans who balked at its $7 billion price tag. The act was reauthorized in 2015 for 90 years. But a portion of the law — the Victim Compensation Fund — was only funded for five years, through the end of 2020. The fund aimed to provide necessary financial support for the thousands who suffered serious medical issues, including a spate of cancer diagnoses, after the 2001 attacks.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline, Chair of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention at Hofstra's School of Medicine, testified before the panel that currently, more than 11,000 types of cancer have been reported since the attacks on 9/11, ranging from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, to debilitating lung cancers.
Several members of the New York congressional delegation, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, both Democrats, and GOP Rep. Peter King, have introduced the Never Forget the Heroes Act of 2019 to reauthorize the Victim Compensation Fund. It also has the support of New York's two senators, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Stewart has long been a champion for the cause, first devoting an entire episode of "The Daily Show" to the political debate over the Zadroga Act back in 2010. He's since become one of the most vocal advocates for 9/11 responders, repeatedly defending the right to health care coverage for those who responded and ran toward the falling towers.
Stewart was disgusted by the small number of members assembled for Tuesday's hearing, calling the showing an "embarrassment to this country" and a "stain on this institution."
"You should be ashamed of yourselves for not being here," he added. "Accountability appears to not be something that occurs in this chamber." Stewart expressed concern that such legislation like the Never Forget Act would just be punted like a "political football" and attached to riders in massive budget bills.
"Why this bill is not unanimous consent is beyond my comprehension," Stewart admonished. He also lambasted Congress for those that consider the measure a "New York" issue.
"More of these men and woman are going to get sick and they're going to die, and I'm awfully tired of hearing this is a 'New York issue.' Al-Qaeda didn't shout 'death to Tribeca.' They attacked America," Stewart remarked.
After a more than five-minute-long tirade against congressional inaction on the issue, the audience in the hearing room gave the comedian a standing ovation.
Stewart's testimony was not the first to bring members of Congress and the audience to its feet. Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD detective and 9/11 responder, also testified before the House panel. He is set to begin his 69th round of chemotherapy Wednesday to treat the cancer he was diagnosed with after the World Trade Center fell.
"This fund isn't a ticket to paradise, it's to provide our families with care," said Alvarez. "You all said you would never forget. Well, I'm here to make sure that you don't," Alvarez said to a room of loud applause.