Fire-Rescue Service Funds Tied Up In Congressional Maze

This month I was hoping to report that Congress had appropriated the money for a new federal program to aid the nation's fire departments. But, as this is written, it's still unresolved.

When the House and the Senate recessed at the end of October, they left a lot of unfinished business and the fire appropriation was part of a much bigger problem. It involved hundreds of billions of dollars and a politically charged budget battle between President Clinton and the Republican leaders of the 106th Congress. Now they are scheduled to return to Washington on Dec. 5 for a post-election lame duck session to work out their differences over federal spending for the 2001 fiscal year.

The unanswered question for the fire-rescue service is whether Congress will appropriate $100 million to fund the first year of a new fire program. They had authorized "Title XVII - Assistance to Fire Fighters," as a two-year program that would provide $400 million in matching grants for local fire departments. It's a drastically trimmed-down version of the original Fire Investment & Response Enhancement (FIRE) Act, which had proposed an expenditure of $5 billion over five years.

However, authorization is meaningless if they don't appropriate money to fund the program. With hundreds of billions to spend, you'd think it would be a piece of cake to come up with a measly $100 million to help the nation's firefighters. And, with the federal government giving $7 billion a year in aid to police departments, it should be easy to justify spending a fraction of that amount to assist fire departments.

But that's not the way things work on Capitol Hill. Supporters of the fire bill have gone from one committee to another, hat in hand, begging for the money to be appropriated. It has been an infuriating and frustrating experience and it shows how the lack of public support has hampered the fire-rescue service in its efforts to get federal aid. Congress would not dare to treat a police bill in this manner because they know there would be a public outcry if they failed to help the cops in their "war on crime."

Supporters of the fire program first tried to get the money in the Department of Defense authorization bill. But the House and Senate members who oversee defense spending would have no part of it. Then they tried to get it funded in the Agriculture bill and that failed. They also were rejected by those handling appropriations for Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development.

As Congress returns for the lame duck session, the latest plan is to get the fire money in appropriations for the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. This may seem like a convoluted way of doing things, but that's the way it's done and that's how all kinds of pork barrel projects get slipped into the federal budget every year.

In fact, some of the senators and representatives who have blocked every effort to help the nation's firefighters are skilled in the art of getting millions of dollars in pork projects for their own states or districts. For example, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, stuck several costly Alaska projects into an emergency appropriation bill that included $100 million for aid to fire departments. The bill had passed the House with bipartisan support, but there was no money for firefighters when it came out of Stevens' Senate committee.

Unfortunately, in this lame duck session, the fate of Title XVII could depend on the tender mercies of Stevens and Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. These are two of the most powerful men in Congress and, like most of the Republican leadership, have not been friendly to the fire-rescue service.

According to congressional sources, it was Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) who passed the word to kill the fire program in that emergency appropriations bill. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) did nothing to get a hearing for the original FIRE Act when it was buried in the House Science committee chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI). Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), the House majority whip, has opposed doing anything that would provide federal money to help fire departments.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the fire-rescue service didn't do any better when the Democrats controlled Congress. And, aside from asking for increased spending to cope with this year's wildland fire problem, the Clinton administration has not offered much support for any fire program. But they've always taken the lead to get money to hire more police officers.

While some Democrats have been indifferent to fire problems, it has been a philosophical issue for many Republicans. They see fire-rescue as a responsibility of local government and question why Washington should become involved. Some express concern that it will lead to "federalization" of the fire service which, of course, is ridiculous. They don't worry about the police being "federalized" and there is no understanding of how badly local government across the country has failed to provide adequate funding for fire and rescue services. (Title XVII calls for a study of that problem.)

Maybe there will be a change of heart in this lame duck session. The fire service's friends in Congress were promised that somehow, somewhere they'd find $100 million to fund the fire program for its first year. But it could be a struggle because the session is expected to be even more acrimonious as a result of the close and bitterly fought election. However, the 106th Congress cannot adjourn until they pass the appropriation bills and, hopefully, they'll include $100 million for Title XVII.

We'll update you next month on how it turned out. As this is written, it's only one item on the list of things we don't know - including who will be the next President of the United States.

Hal Bruno, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.