Kevin O’Connor explains why unnecessary Congressional maneuvering left the fire service in a state of uncertainty for six months.

The continuing pit of partisan politics, the arcane rules governing Congress, and schoolyard-style feuds between the House and Senate condemn Washington to continued dysfunction.

Last year the “Nine Sisters”—an Inside-the-Beltway colloquialism for the major fire service organizations—agreed to language for the reauthorization of the Assistance to Fire Fighters (AFG) and SAFER programs. The fire service did what all big boys and girls should do—we went into a room and negotiated. 

Compromises were made and deals were cut. We emerged from the room united. We started with the understanding that these two vital programs, which have pumped billions of dollars into local fire departments for staffing, training, apparatus, health and safety, PPE, SCBA and other necessary tools for our industry, end on Jan. 2, 2018.

Because the Senate is always a harder hurdle to navigate due to the tradition of unlimited debate and the ability of one senator to derail a proposal, we started there. Senator John McCain, a chair of the Congressional Fire Caucus, agreed to serve as the lead sponsor. Our first major challenge was the committee chair of Homeland Security, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), who is a fiscal hawk and simply doesn’t believe that the feds should fund the functions of state and local government. Through grassroots lobbying and peer pressure from McCain and others convincing the senator that well-prepared local fire departments are essential to homeland security and disaster response, he came aboard. We passed the bill out of the Senate in July. 

The House has always supported the measure enthusiastically. This year was a different story. In July there was a hearing in which NO ONE spoke in opposition to the proposal. NO ONE. Of course, members of Congress and, more importantly, their staffs, know our needs better than the collective leadership of America’s fire service.

In September, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology planned on writing their own bill. In October, they abandoned the idea. The fire service believed that we were on the precipice of success. From a process standpoint, the House could simply pass the Senate bill, which would be then signed into law and the programs reauthorized. Remember, this is the bill that the entire fire service supports and the Senate passed unanimously. 

Sounds easy, correct? It certainly should have been. But this is the world’s Capitol of Inertia. 

Here are some of the reasons offered for not moving the bill quickly, starting with a great one: The Senate won’t pass any of our House bills, so why should we pass Senate bills? Perhaps because this bill happens to be good public policy and when it’s finally on the House floor will pass with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Or maybe because members of Congress are elected to enact laws and make public policy, not engage in a game of nanny-nanny-boo-boo.

My other favorite “reason” was that Senator McCain is not well-regarded among his party so his sponsorship is a problem. Let’s see, he’s war hero, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, former presidential nominee, co-chair of the Fire Caucus, and American icon. I can see where that’s a problem.

So, in true D.C. fashion, the Science Committee reversed its position and decided in December to write its own bill so the House doesn’t have to deal with that nasty Senate proposal that the entire fire service supports. No, this is not an exercise in fiction or creative writing. It’s our government at its best or worst.

Fearful of the impending sunset of the two programs, the Nine Sisters began comprehensive lobbying and grassroots efforts to jar the House into action. One group, the IAFF, spent heavily on ads and pass-through calls to spark the House into acting on its own. 

On Dec. 19, only 13 days before the programs expire, the House passed H.R. 4661. They changed the bill to add a six-year sunset. That’s it, one minor change. Guess what? It passed unanimously. Good news, except that it needed to go back to the Senate for concurrence. Happily, they were willing to pass a House Bill, also unanimously, and President Trump signed it into law.

Both chambers voted unanimously and the right result was achieved. But, for six months, uncertainty prevailed and the fire service was unnecessarily jerked around. America’s Bravest deserve better from the people we send to Congress.