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Despite the long odds against them, the seven major fire organizations have agreed to push forward with a renewed effort to rescue a bill that would provide $1 billion a year in federal aid to local fire departments over a period of five years. In doing so, they rejected a compromise offer that might add $100 million in short-term support for federal fire programs.
As reported last month, the "Firefighter Investment and Response Act" (FIRE Act), has been bottled up and left to die in the House Science Committee. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisconsin), the powerful committee chairman, has refused to allow a hearing on the bill and the House GOP leadership has ignored appeals by the fire organizations to break the barricade. Without a hearing, there is no chance of passage, even though the bill has been gaining support among House members since it was first introduced by Rep. William Pascrell Jr. (D-New Jersey).
The latest count shows 210 co-sponsors (157 Democrats and 53 Republicans), which is only eight short of the 218 votes required for passage - IF it could get out of committee and reach the floor of the House for a full debate. Within the Science Committee, a majority of the members (19 Democrats, six Republicans) are among the co-sponsors, which indicates the bill would have a good chance of being approved - IF Chairman Sensenbrenner would allow a hearing to be held.
With those encouraging numbers in mind, the fire service organizations are using the holiday recess to wage a grass roots campaign in the home districts of members who have been reluctant to support the bill. They're calling for firefighters to explain to their representatives why their departments need federal aid, the impact it would have on health and safety, and how it would improve the level of fire protection and emergency medical services for the citizens.
It has to be an "educational" rather than a political campaign. The FIRE Act must be sold on its own merits because the threat of political retaliation won't work. The prime targets to be educated are Republicans, especially those on the Science Committee. Most are in so-called "safe" districts where they figure to be easily re-elected. The fire-rescue service doesn't have the political power to beat anyone; the only tactic that will change minds is firefighters presenting a strong case for the bill, along with an appeal for fairness and equal treatment. It has to be pointed out that the police receive $7 billion a year in federal aid to help local law enforcement, while the fire-rescue service gets a paltry $32 million.
From the start, a major problem has been that the legislation was introduced by a Democrat in a Republican Congress, where it has been viewed by some as another big-spending, budget-busting boondoggle. Some GOP members suspect that it's a Democratic plot to embarrass them by casting them as bad guys who won't help firefighters. There is no plot, but there is a real danger that the bill may get snarled in a partisan Democrat-Republican fight. If that happens, Republicans will drop off the co-sponsor list and the FIRE Act will be D.O.A., with no hope of resuscitation.
The number of co-sponsors also can be deceiving and is not locked in stone. Under terms of the Balanced Budget Agreement, any new spending has to take money from existing programs in order to be funded. Democrats as well as Republicans might quickly abandon the FIRE Act if it starts taking money from popular projects that have strong public support. Unfortunately, the fire bill has yet to generate any support from outside the fire service and that too has been a major problem.
We keep hearing that Democrats have been trying to get some backing for the FIRE Act from the Clinton administration, but thus far there has not been any sign of encouragement. Given the toxic atmosphere between the White House and the Republican Congress, it's unclear whether an endorsement from President Clinton or Vice President Gore would help or hurt the bill. But with or without their support, Congressman Pascrell says he's determined to "stick with my commitment ... this bill closes a gaping hole in the federal government's role in support of public safety."
He's counting on the fire organizations to whip up the grass roots support that is desperately needed and, despite all the obstacles, they are determined to get a hearing and force Congress to take some kind of action. It was a unanimous decision and Fred Nesbitt, legislative director for the International Association of Fire Fighters, relates: "Everyone agreed that we want a hearing, an up-or-down vote, and if we can't get enough to pass it, then shame on us." Alan Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, adds: "If we get a hearing, we can show that this bill has merit and that the federal government has a responsibility to help firefighters protect their own lives and the people they serve."
In taking this stand, the fire organizations rejected an offer the House Republican leadership made to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) to substitute a lesser bill that would provide $100 million for federal programs to aid fire departments. Weldon, who is a co-sponsor of the FIRE Act, sees the offer as "a comprise to get something for the short-term, or risk getting nothing."
Many Republicans are uncomfortable with the position they're in. They have no intention of defying their leadership, but they want to do something to help the fire-rescue service. Rep. Nick Smith (R-Michigan), chairman of the Science subcommittee on Basic Research, summed it up when he told Firehouse®: "The firefighters have been short-changed for years and we want to find a way to help them if we can."
Smith's subcommittee would hold the hearings if Chairman Sensenbrenner and the House GOP leadership ever change their minds. Meanwhile, meetings are underway between Smith, Weldon, Pascrell, the fire organizations and others. What comes out of those meetings will depend to a great extent on how much support the fire service can generate when members of Congress are home for the holidays.
It's a long, long shot, but it's the only hope to rescue the FIRE Act.
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.