Gridlock: A Way of Life in Washington, DC

Convincing Congress to approve legislation is an exercise in patience and perseverance.


Two weeks ago, Ed Comeau with Campus Firewatch issued a release announcing that the House of Representatives approved legislation that would require colleges and university to post information on fire-related events on campus property. The Senate was in the process of passing legislation similar legislation. In the release, Comeau proclaimed that the campaign to approve the legislation was nearing completion following a six-year effort.

Six years? Why should it take six years to approve legislation that will advance the cause of public safety at little expense to the federal government? A good question and unfortunately, there is not a good answer.

When folks talk about the gridlock in Washington, DC, they are not necessarily talking about the traffic, as notorious as it is. They're talking about the political environment on Capitol Hill. Yes, six years seems like a long time to pass a bill; but for every piece of legislation that Congress approves, there are 20 other measures that fail. (In the 109th Congress, the House introduced 6,436 pieces of legislation and only 316 measures were approved by both chambers and signed into law by the President.)

Convincing Congress to approve legislation is an exercise in patience and perseverance. If you don't succeed the first time, don't get discouraged. Even the titans of lobbying face challenges in getting their legislation approved. Just ask the International Association of Fire Fighters that has been lobbying for passage of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act since the measure was first introduced in 1994. Or ask the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials who spent over 10 years trying to convince Congress to set aside broadcast spectrum for first responders. Congress finally approved legislation last year to begin the spectrum transition.

Whenever Congress fails to act on a measure before the conclusion of a legislative session, the process must start anew in the next session - that is if the member is willing to reintroduce the measure and the coalition supporting it is willing to re-energize itself and fight the battle again. This means that the sponsor starts with a blank slate of co-sponsors and must contact each member again asking if they would be willing to support the measure. In addition, he/she must reach out to the new members, asking for their support. It often takes more than a phone call but instead lengthy discussions between members and their respective staffs before a signature is collected.

While final passage is the last hurdle before the President signs a measure into law, the biggest hurdle occurs when a measure is awaiting action by the committee of jurisdiction.

Following the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003 that killed 100 people, former Congressman Curt Weldon introduced the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act which would accelerate the depreciation of automatic sprinkler systems in commercial properties, including public facilities. For five years, a coalition of fire safety organizations, including CFSI, has been working to convince Congress to pass the measure. The bill has never made it past the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. The reasons vary - past cost estimates were considered too high by the respective committees' leadership, neither committee wants to address it as a stand-alone piece of legislation, and although not stated publicly, the measure was not originally introduced by a committee member.

Many years back when taking part in a question and answer session with a group of fire service officials, the comment was made to me that Congress needs to do more for the fire service because of the vital mission we serve throughout our great nation. I couldn't agree more. But as this exchange was taking place, there were probably a number of other similar discussions taking place among different groups making the same claim.

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