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The pitfalls of the Congressional legislative process briefly threatened to derail the proposed FIRE Act in a House subcommittee, until veteran fire service lobbyists came to the rescue and prevented what could have been a near-fatal accident. It's a story worth telling because it shows the value of experience and why it's necessary to have a unified effort and a strategic plan when it comes to passing legislation.
Known as the Pascrell bill or FIRE Act, the official title of HR-1168 is the "Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act." It was introduced by Rep. William Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ) and calls for the federal government to provide $5 billion in grants to local fire departments over a period of five years.
The bill won support from the major fire organizations after some modifications were made in the original draft. It also has picked up 112 sponsors, including 20 Republicans. But many more GOP sponsors are needed if a big-spending bill introduced by a Democrat is to have any chance of being passed in a Congress controlled by a Republican majority.
Potential trouble came from out of nowhere when the Basic Research subcommittee of the House Science Committee met for a hearing on the U.S. Fire Administration's (USFA) reauthorization bill. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), apparently thought it would be a good idea to make FIRE Act an amendment to USFA's $46 million reauthorization bill.
FIRE Act's supporters were caught by surprise, because Rep. Pascrell had told the fire service leaders that he wanted his bill to go through the process on its own merits. They feared that an amendment costing more than the bill it was attached to would most certainly be killed in committee, and it would look as is the Democrats were trying to pull an end run on the Republicans. "Any big-money bill introduced by Democrats is bound to arouse suspicion in Congress," a fire service lobbyist explains, "which is why we have to get more Republican sponsors."
Legislative experts from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) moved quickly and quietly behind the scenes to correct a tactical error. Rep. Johnson withdrew her amendment and the FIRE Act now is waiting for various committees to schedule their own separate hearings. Meanwhile, the bill's supporters are hustling to get more Republicans on board.
There have been some encouraging signs. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed his intention to hold a full hearing on the problems facing firefighters. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI), chairman of the Basic Research subcommittee, also is a member of the powerful House Budget Committee and said he would work in the budget process to find money for the FIRE Act. Furthermore, the USFA's reauthorization bill - which calls for an $18 million increase in spending - sailed through the subcommittee with no trouble.
However, FIRE Act still has a long and tortuous road to navigate. "It's tough to push a Republican Congress on anything that involves big spending, especially for something that is primarily a local responsibility," another fire service lobbyist points out. But he adds that there seems to be new "fire-friendly" mood on Capitol Hill and, in his view, Pascrell's bill may have a realistic chance of being passed.
Also encouraging is the fact that several senior Republican members of the Science Committee have a history of support for the fire-rescue service. They include such stalwarts as Sherwood Boehlert (NY), Connie Morella (MD) and Curt Weldon (PA), who is the GOP co-sponsor of the FIRE Act. A showing of strong grass-roots support from firefighters around the country would do a lot to help other members realize how much the fire service needs this bill. It's up to you to let them know.
On another front, word got out that a few Democrats might try to stop a top-level USFA reorganization proposed by James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Following a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Panel report, Witt has created the new post of USFA "chief operating officer," to report directly to him. He will be in charge of USFA's day-to-day operations while the administrator will play the role of an advocate for the federal fire programs.
Carrye Brown, the current fire administrator, has objected to the reorganization and wants the new executive to report to her. For the moment, her congressional allies may be persuaded not to make an issue of this. The recruitment of candidates for the new post is going forward and hopefully it will be filled by a fire chief whose on-the-job record will command the respect and confidence of the fire-rescue service. Chief Richard Marinucci, who was brought in by Witt to implement the Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations, has been named as the acting chief operating officer; in effect, he is running the Fire Administration.
It has to be emphasized that these events are only skirmishes and the main battles have yet to be fought. But it's a good start, with the chiefs, the union, the volunteers and the other fire organizations actively supporting the Pascrell bill and the reorganization of the Fire Administration. But these difficult and important goals can only be achieved with a unified strategy and the guidance of skilled fire service lobbyists who know how to play the Congressional games. There also has to be grass-roots support and tactics that win friends on Capitol Hill.
FIRE Act still faces an uphill fight in Congress, but recent events would indicate that this type of step-by-step approach may actually be working.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.