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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.