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What can the Fire Service Expect from D.C. in 2011?

As of September 2010, the federal debt was $13,433,710,591,905, give or take a few dollars. To erase the debt, every American would have to cut a check for $43,468 -- from every newborn in hospital nurseries to every senior rounding the final corner of life's journey. Anxiety over the debt and annual federal deficits (the 2010 fiscal year deficit is projected to be $1.4 trillion) is not limited to the Tea Party activists; it looms over the heads of all Americans, particularly our elected leaders who face tough campaigns in November.

Regardless of who wins in November, Congress and the Administration hear the public outcry and will need to make some tough choices to reign in the debt. And this challenge becomes increasingly more difficult each year as the baby boomers approach retirement age and qualify for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in increasing numbers.

In February of this year, President Obama signed an executive order creating an 18-member panel to make recommendations on reducing the federal debt. Co-chaired by Alan K. Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader, and Erskine B. Bowles, a top official in the Clinton White House, the panel was given the herculean task of developing recommendations to significantly reduce soaring budget deficits by 2015. The recommendations will include both spending cuts and tax increases. To say that the recommendations will be well-received in Washington is Pollyanna. Conservatives will consider any tax increases anathema to their core beliefs while liberals will eschew the idea of drastic cuts to federal programs. Finding common ground will not be an easy task considering how polarized Washington has become.

So what does this have to do with the fire and emergency services? The same thing it has to do with every other special interest group in Washington. Next year, Congress and the Administration will not be able to ignore the mounting federal debt, especially after the campaign pledges they will have made to the voters back home. Aside from the entitlement programs, virtually every program will be scrutinized for potential cuts or elimination. Nothing will be sacred or shielded from the budget axe.

Do I sound like a doomsayer? Forgive me if I do, but this is the political reality in Washington, D.C. Congress cannot prolong addressing the budget crisis. Hence, come next January, the fire service must form their own version of a tea party movement. Local firefighters should not solely depend on their national organizations - whether it's the IAFF, NVFC, IAFC, NPFA, NAFTD, NASFM,  etc. - to carry all of the load on their behalf. They must become engaged themselves, contacting the organizations that represent their interests to learn how they can help the organizations advance their agendas.

If you conduct a poll, virtually every American would be in favor of reducing federal spending, but with one caveat: just don't cut my program. As Congress faces the daunting task next year of developing the federal budget and approving the appropriations measure (including the Homeland Security Appropriations bill), there will be no shortage of special interest groups lobbying for the protection of their own federal programs. They will provide cogent arguments on the benefits of their program, building support one member at a time. Do not expect members - even our allies - to have the interest of the fire service first and foremost in the backs of their minds. No, in Washington, the squeaky wheel does in fact get the grease.

This is something to think about. But don't think too long; prepare to act. It's difficult to predict the number of new members next session, but political pundits are predicting significant changes. Whereas in many cases, seats will change political parties, many open seats will be retained by the party in power. Either way, the fire service should hit the ground running following the elections setting up meetings with their representatives to discuss the issues Congress will address in the 113th Congress - whether its funding for Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants (SAFER), D Block, collective bargaining, volunteer job protection, Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, or funding for U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy.

President Ronald Reagan once quipped, "Government programs, once launched, never disappear." That might change starting next year. Let's just make sure ours don't.

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.