By Bill Webb
Congressional Fire Services Institute
As Washington becomes more polarized, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the two political parties to find common ground. In the days of old, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would square off during the day and exchange Irish jokes in the evening. But today’s political tensions make it difficult for displays of camaraderie between parties.
The big fight in Washington right now is over the budget. Emboldened by the outcome of the November elections, Republicans in the House are on a mission to cut spending. The House leadership is calling for substantial cuts, but cuts that pale in comparison to those being sought by the new class of freshmen Republican members. They are holding firm to the $100 billion that the House GOP pledged during the campaign season.
Although Republicans regained control of the House, Democrats still hold power in the Senate. Pressure is mounting for Democratic leaders to cut spending, but it is unlikely they will agree on a figure that remotely comes close to $100 billion. Nor is the White House prepared to accept such a figure. But, both the Senate leadership and White House understood the message from the voters last November, and will take significant steps to reduce federal spending.
Personally speaking, I believe that the mounting deficit needs to be addressed, and Congress has to look at spending cuts to reduce the deficit. However, our political leaders should exercise caution when considering cuts to programs that benefit public safety agencies.
Local fire departments are on the frontline of homeland security. When disasters occur, posing security and safety concerns at the local, state or national level, fire departments are the first agencies responding to the scene – long before federal agencies are deployed. This is the reality of homeland security that cannot be discounted when considering potential cuts to homeland security programs.
I am no different than most of the folks in Washington, D.C., who represent a particular constituency. We all support deficit reduction, but not at the expense of our respective federal programs. Compromising will not be the modus operandi in the 112th Congress; instead, special interests will lobby aggressively for their own programs, fighting to preserve existing appropriation levels, if not calling for increased support. Complacency will get you nowhere.
The figures members of Congress are discussing to reduce the deficit are significant. “Make no mistake, these cuts are not low-hanging fruit,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “These cuts are real and will impact every district across the country.”
If you look at the fire service agenda, you will see that most of the legislative priorities impact the federal budget. The Fire Act, SAFER, the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act are all measures that involve federal dollars. There are a number of other measures in addition to the aforementioned that benefit both the career and volunteer services and that depend on the federal budget. Often accused of drinking from a half-empty class, I would caution everyone in the fire service to consider how much these programs mean to you. If you want continued support so you can purchase equipment and apparatus or hire additional staff, if you want more businesses to install fire sprinklers, if you want public safety to have access to additional spectrum for communication systems, then now is the time to get active – not tomorrow.
Some may contend that a $100 billion cut is reasonable for a $3.1 trillion budget. But such a cut needs to be put in a proper perspective. The majority of the federal budget covers mandatory budget items, including the big three – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Many members of Congress consider these programs to be off-limits. Then there is funding for military and veterans programs, which are sacrosanct to a large extent. The defense budget, alone for fiscal year 2010 was $680 billion. What’s left are non-military discretionary programs -the most vulnerable programs – and they include FIRE and SAFER.
Another budget item that should be raising plenty of concern is funding for the United States Fire Administration (USFA)and the National Fire Academy (NFA). In fiscal year 2004, USFA/NFA received $57.4 million in funding; for fiscal 2012, the administration is proposing $42.5 million. The entire fire service has benefited from the leadership of USFA – our voice at the federal level. The National Fire Academy, under the leadership of Dr. Denis Onieal, provides leadership training to more than 110,000 firefighters annually. Neither the NFA nor the USFA can withstand any more assaults on their budgets without having their missions significantly affected.
Make no mistake, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are serious about reducing federal spending. Whereas neither Congress or the administration have the political will to touch entitlements or the defense budget, all other federal programs are fair game.
To reach the desired levels for spending reductions, Congress will have to make some tough choices, as Chairman Rogers said. If the fire service desires continued federal support, firefighters of every rank will have to become active, contacting their members of Congress and encouraging them to protect the programs that protect our firefighters and the citizens they serve. The time to act is now!
For additional information about the U.S. Congress – contact information for representatives and senators, the status of fire and emergency service legislation and a listing of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus – please visit the CFSI Web site at www.cfsi.org.
In closing, I would like to express the sadness everyone at CFSI felt in January when we lost one of our board members, Bob Barraclough, who was a contributing writer for this magazine. For many years, Bob served on our Board of Directors. He was our link to the fire service industry. When the institute was first formed in 1989, Bob embraced our mission. He made it his mission to promote the benefits of our work, not only to the fire service, but to the companies and service providers. Whether at trade shows or FAMA/FEMSA conferences, Bob would always take me under his wing and introduce me to his peers.
In recent years, his health impaired his physical abilities, but it never stood in the way of his passion for the industry and for a safer fire service. Much to Bob’s credit, working relations between the fire service industry and fire service organizations gained momentum shortly after CFSI was established and continue to gain strength each year.
The image I will always have of my dear friend is one in which he is seated on his director’s chair smack dab in the middle of the trade show floor holding court with industry colleagues or firefighters who wanted to learn about the latest in fire service technology. He was an innovator, a leader and a friend. Of the many things he left behind, the most profound is his legacy. Cheers Bob.
Editor’s Note: Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) since 1995. In his capacity as executive director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders on developing federal legislation and enhancing federal programs designed to improve the readiness of our nation’s fire and emergency services.