In such unpredictable political times, it takes a crystal ball to write a column about the year ahead in Washington. The bottom line: Last year Congress and the Administration agreed on six bills benefiting the fire service—but did very little else. This year, the Democrats in Congress will try to make up for 12 years without a president of their own. The legislative agenda will be very, very full, and the social activists ignored for those dozen years will want their due. If firerelated bills make progress in 1993, it will take more creativity and luck than it did in 1992.
Here—I think—are the two big factors:
1. For a while, Washington w ill be a one-issue town. At Clinton Headquarters in Little Rock, campaign workers displayed the sign “The economy, stupid” to remind themselves of the obvious: President Clinton was elected to fix the economy. Although Democrats have waited 12 long years to occupy the White House and have enormous expectations, no other issue—certainly not life safety—will be addressed until a comprehensive economic program is in place or the economy simply improves on its own. Either way, we’re probably talking six months, if not a year.
Putting that program in place won’t be easy. Democrats come in all shapes, sizes, philosophies, and persuasions. The days of the party bosses are long over, and shaping voting blocks in this Congress may not be much easier than in the past one. It will be done because Democrats knowthat they no longer can blame Republicans for inaction.
2. Key life-safety jobs may remain vacant for a while. The Bush Administration waited more than a year to appoint a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and an administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration. The superintendent of the National Fire Academy took months longer.
President Bush just didn’t get around to it. President Clinton may have a good reason to wrait. Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for FEMA, intends to see sw eeping changes in the muchcriticized agency. By the time Sen. Mikulski gets finished, FEMA may be one teensy-weensy federal agency if, in fact, it survives at all. And so why appoint someone to a job that may not exist?
Even if the FEMA post remains vacant, the President could fill the U.S. fire administrator post. But let’s face it, the President has to make thousands of political appointments, and this job traditionally has been one of the last filled.
Should the fire service just go home and patiently wait its turn? Nah. The trick in 1993 will be to find the right horses—major, complicated, visible legislative packages—and ride them hard. Some ideas:
- A complex, zillion-page federal tax bill will be among the first major legislative initiatives to move. Why? Because the only time to propose taxes is very early in your term of office. Hopefully, voters will forget by the time the next election rolls around.
- It’s high time that Americans received tax incentives for building homes with sprinklers and other fire protection measures. Crazy? Not at all. Some tough lobbying just might make it happen.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Act should be modified in 1993. Look for the International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO— disgusted by the failure to enact broad worker safety rules via the NFPA codes and standards process—to turn to OSHA for help. The LAFF was the only fire service group to endorse Clinton, and it should expect something in return.
- The Arson Prevention Act, introduced last year by Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, is likely to pass on its own this year. But then arson is a crime, and Congress loves to fight crime.
- Finally, as Congress beats swords into plowshares, Sen. Mikulski indeed will beat FEMA and its defense-related budget into oblivion. Fire service programs should get a few bucks in the process.