Lawmakers back bill to provide more money for 9/11 victims fund
WASHINGTON — Congressional lawmakers on Monday announced legislation to fully fund and continuously compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after the administrator of a federal victims' fund said future awards would be slashed because the account was nearly depleted.
Only $2.375 billion remained of a once $7.375 billion fund that was established in 2011 and reauthorized in 2015, Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, announced earlier this month. Claims submitted on or before Feb. 1, 2019, would be slashed 50 percent, while awards submitted after that date would be reduced by 70 percent, she said.
The fund has paid out $5 billion on about 21,000 claims and has been extended through Dec. 18, 2020.
The lawmakers pressed for passage of the bill during a news conference Monday at the Capitol building that drew advocates, law enforcement leaders and victims of the terrorist attacks.
They urged both chambers of Congress to restore the money, painting the issue as national and moral crisis. The fund should be made permanent, and lawmakers should not have to continue seeking extensions, they argued.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said: "It should not have to be a fight to pass this bill again … If we cannot come together to show America once again that we will never ever forget, we will not leave our 9/11 first responders on their own, then what can be done?"
"We must not force our 9/11 heroes to go through this same exhausting process again," she said. "The 9/11 death toll is still growing."
The number of claims filed in recent years has accelerated, putting a strain on the fund. While nearly 20,000 claims were filed in the fund’s first five years, about 21,000 claims were filed in the two that followed.
The uptick in claims can be attributed to a rise in the rate of victims’ serious illnesses, more deaths attributed to the exposure of toxic chemicals at Ground Zero, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, and a warning issued last October that future awards could be slashed, according to fund operators.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "If we learn that more people are hurt, we don't stop and say 'too late buddy, too late ma'am. You got your cancer five years too late.' We step up to the plate."
"The idea that we have had to scrounge over the years and beg people, 'well, give us a few years,' should not be embedded in people's heads. This is a moral obligation. It is what America is all about. It is the same moral obligation that we have had to our veterans and everybody else."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said, “We have a moral obligation … to follow through on this. This should not even be an issue. This should be something we just do.” He recalled previous demonstrations outside of the special master’s office to get the funding released in the past.
“These are real human beings and there are families that are suffering,” King said.
Jon Stewart, the former host of "The Daily Show" and an advocate for 9/11 first responders, said, "If the American people in their busy lives had any sense that these shenanigans were going on, they'd be outraged."
"This program already exists, it's like if you had a Starbucks card, we're just asking to get a little more money on it," he said. "It already relieved some of the stresses that these grieving families are going through. There's no fraud, there's no nonsense."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), wearing a firefighter jacket, said, "This is not a New York challenge, this is a challenge for the United States of America. This was an attack against America."
John Feal, a Ground Zero worker and activist, said, "We will never be disrespected again. You're either with us or you're against us."