Comedian Jon Stewart took members of Congress to task on Tuesday, blasting part of the House Judiciary Committee for its low attendance at a hearing about reauthorizing funding for people with diseases linked to the 9/11 crash sites.
Congress created the Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to help anyone injured or sickened in the attacks or in the response process.
"As I sit here today, I can't help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to," Stewart told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress."
The firefighters, police officers and others came to the hearing despite illness and injuries, Stewart said, but some members of the subcommittee chose not to show up. The first responders attended the hearing to advocate for the financial compensation they are due, Stewart said.
"I'm sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic," said Stewart, the former host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. "But I'm angry and you should be, too."
He berated the lawmakers for what he called their "callous indifference" and "rank hypocrisy," campaigning on first responders' issues and commending their heroism, yet not acting in Congress to support them.
"There is not a person here - there is not an empty chair on that stage that didn't tweet out, 'never forget the heroes of 9/11; never forget their bravery; never forget what they did, what they gave to this country,'" Stewart said, then motioned to the crowd of first responders behind him. "Well, here they are."
The fund was most recently reactivated in 2015 as part of the reauthorization of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care and financial assistance to first responders, volunteers and survivors. The Victim Compensation Fund is allowing people to submit claims until Dec. 18, 2020, but the fund's leadership said in February it would reduce awards because of "funding insufficiency."
Stewart has been advocating for the Victim Compensation Fund since at least 2010, when he devoted nine minutes of "The Daily Show" to criticizing members of Congress who opposed the Zadroga Act. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters at the time that Stewart's activism may have caused "a breakthrough" on the issue.
Stewart did not speak from a written statement, like many who appear in front of committees tend to do. At times, the former late-night host raised his voice. He came close to crying. He begged the committee to take their issues seriously.
"They responded in five seconds - they did their jobs. With courage, grace, tenacity, humility," Stewart said, tearing up and dropping his pen onto the desk. "... Eighteen years later, do yours."
The first responders behind him rose to their feet, erupting into sustained applause as some lawmakers clapped slowly from their seats.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., the chairman of the subcommittee, pushed back against Stewart's criticisms to defend Congress as "the bulwark of democracy" and added that other committee meetings take place at the same time.
"Some members are in their offices visiting with constituents, or they may be watching on television, because this is broadcast. ... Our attendance was pretty good," Cohen said. "All these empty chairs, that's because it's for the full committee. It's not because of disrespect or lack of attention to you."
Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn., were the only two subcommittee members who did not attend, said Daniel Schwarz, a spokesman for subcommittee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Other members cycled in and out of the hearing, Schwarz said.
Ranking member Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., later sought to assure Stewart his message resonated with many, regardless of who actually attended the hearing. He further predicted the measure to extend the fund would pass with little opposition.
"I've been in politics a while. I can't recall being so moved by testimony as I was today," Johnson said. "I cried through most of this, a lot of us did. ... If it's any comfort to you all, we know this bill is going to pass with an overwhelming landslide majority of the House, maybe unanimous."
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have always been personal for Stewart, who said in 2001 that he could see the World Trade Center from his apartment in Lower Manhattan. Nine days after the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, Stewart appeared behind his wooden desk on "The Daily Show," stumbling at first to shirk the awkwardness that comes naturally with a late-night comedy show in the wake of the nation's most unfathomable tragedy. "Tonight's show is obviously not a regular show," he said.
Then came an unforgettable monologue.
"Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding ... that is ... that's extraordinary. And that's why we've already won," he said, his voice cracking. "It's light. It's democracy. We've already won. They can't shut that down."
The Washington Post's Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.