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Three Weeks and Counting: The Impact of the 2010 Elections

You walk into a sports bar in Philadelphia and you'll probably hear folks talking about the Eagles or Phillies. In Chicago, the topic of conversation will be the Bears, Blackhawks or Bulls. But if you walk into a sports bar on Capitol Hill, the talk will be about a different kind of sport: the midterm elections. Yes, there's plenty of chatter in this town about the Redskins, Capitals and Wizards, but the midterm elections are front and center for the Beltway insiders whose work has anything to do with federal policies and programs.

Regardless of who will control Congress on November 3, the mid-term elections are certain to bring about significant changes in Washington, DC -- changes that will effect spending within virtually every federal agency impacting every sector of our society. For this reason, we should all give serious thought to voting on Election Day. There's absolutely no excuse not to exercise our constitutional right - and privilege - to vote, a right that is often taken for granted in democratic societies but is out of reach for less fortunate people in foreign lands.

With the economy still searching for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and the deficit continuing to spiral out of control, this election has become a referendum on reducing the debt -- a debt that has punctured a whole in the economic atmosphere, climbing to over $13 trillion and counting.

Few in Washington have the stomach to make the unpopular decisions to restore fiscal discipline in this town. We can talk all we want about eliminating earmarks, raising taxes or conversely preserving the Bush tax cuts. But as we all know, entitlement programs and interest on the debt consume the lion's share of our budget. What politician wants to step forward and proclaim that we need to reduce the rate of growth for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in order to restore fiscal discipline? Only a politician who is prepared to write his/her own political obituary would make such a pronouncement.

An article recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times about former Congressman Lee Hamilton, one of the most distinguished and admired individuals to serve in Congress in recent memory. Those who followed the federal government's response to the 9/11 attacks may recall his name. Hamilton served as a co-chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka: 9/11 Commission). He was asked by a reporter about the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill. His response:

The American political system faces a daunting test in building national consensus for belt-tightening in both domestic and foreign policy. Congress needs to take actions that many voters will find unpalatable: raising taxes, cutting spending, downsizing our goals. To make it work, leaders of both parties need to become "pragmatic realists" and rediscover the lost art of bipartisan negotiations. And that's the rub.

As for the rub for the fire service...expect whole-sale changes in Congress -- both in the House and Senate. There will be a minimum of 14 newly elected Senators by virtue of open seats. Political prognosticators are talking about significant changes in the House as well. Regardless of which party takes hold of the gavel in either chamber, the fire service must begin to focus on introducing itself to a new crop of members -- both at home and in Washington, D.C..

Former Congressman Hamilton is right: action will need to be taken on the federal budget and it will need to include cutting spending. In January of this year, President Obama signed an Executive Order to establish the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. If 14 of the 18 commissioners can seek agreement, the Commission will release a report by December 10 outlining ways the federal government can eliminate the budget deficit by 2015. This does not include payment on the debt. From a political perspective, the Commission will provide members a firewall against public backlash when they consider implementing the recommendations. My guess is the commission will encourage Congress to conduct a thorough review of all grant programs and other programs that might be considered redundant for possible elimination. Some of our own might make the list.

So, come November 3 after you've had a chance to watch CNN, MSNBC or FOX for a post-election analysis, it would behoove you to start thinking about arranging meetings with your own members of Congress (both Senators and House members) to educate them about how they can address the needs of the fire service -- both locally and nationally. Visit the websites of the national fire service organization(s) that represent your interest on Capitol Hill for a listing of their legislative priorities.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) produced an educational video on the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER). If you want to deliver a message to your elected officials about the efficacy of these two programs, visit our website to view the video. We can send you copies of the video in advance of your meetings so you can share it with your members to reinforce the importance of these programs.

If there was ever a time for the fire service to sound the alarm and become politically active, this is it. To get this point across during my speaking engagements, I often like to use the quote "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." But I came upon an Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote that I believe captures the sense of urgency for the fire service as we look ahead at the 112th Congress. When pressured by representatives of a special interest group for support of an issue, Roosevelt responded, "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it." Let's go out in the 112th and make our elected leaders do it. If the fire service doesn't, no one else will.

BILL WEBB, a Contributing Editor, is the Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Established in 1989, CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance Congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. In his capacity, Bill works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders on developing federal legislation to improve the readiness of our nation's fire and emergency services. Previously, he served in the first Bush Administration as Director of Advance at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, traveling across the country and abroad organizing events for the Secretaries.