On Monday, August 5th, the annual Congressional summer recess began. Members of the House and Senate will spend the month of August in their home districts, not returning to Capitol Hill until after Labor Day. While members of Congress are escaping the sweltering heat of Washington, DC, that doesn’t mean they won’t be working during the month of August. For many members of Congress, the August recess is really a district work period. It serves as an opportunity for them to return home and meet face-to-face with the constituents who elected them to office.
During the month, Congressman and Senators will be hosting town hall meetings and meeting with constituents to discuss the critical issues not only being discussed in the halls of Congress, but also at dinner tables across the country. Many of the issues Congress will be debating when they return in September will be of critical importance to America’s fire and emergency services. For this reason, it is important that every firefighter take time during August to reach out to their members of Congress. Meet with them face-to-face. Attend town hall meetings. Invite your representatives to tour your fire house. Request a meeting in the member’s district office to discuss the issues that are important to you.
In addition to dealing with the continued automatic spending cuts under sequestration, addressing comprehensive immigration reform, and the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Congress will also need to complete work on the fiscal year 2014 spending bills before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30th. Earlier this year, the House passed a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes funding for the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE), Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, and the United States Fire Administration (USFA). The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved a fiscal year 2014 DHS spending bill, but the Senate adjourned for the recess before taking up the bill. Both the House and Senate bills maintain level funding for USFA. The Senate bill funds the FIRE and SAFER grants at $337.5 million each (the same amount as the current fiscal year), while the House bill increases funding for the grant programs by $2.5 million each.
When many federal programs are being cut or eliminated, and federal employees are facing furloughs, it is positive to see Congress is maintaining its commitment to these important fire service programs. However, in order for that support to continue, it is imperative for the fire service to actively engage their elected officials.
In addition to addressing annual appropriations bills, Congress could be taking up comprehensive tax reform when they return. Congressman Dave Camp (MI-4), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced his intention to hold a committee markup of a tax reform bill in October. Should Congress consider comprehensive tax reform, this would provide an opportunity for the fire service to advance a number of important tax bills, including the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act, and the Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act. Congress may also consider the Safe Building Codes Incentive Act, legislation that encourages states to adopt and enforce state-wide model building codes. Before Congress will act on any of these issues though, they must first hear from fire and emergency service leaders in their districts.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once was fond of saying “All politics is local,” and never has that been truer than it is today. Grassroots movements have more influence than ever in Washington, DC. But in order for the fire service to continue to influence policy in our nation’s capital, all fire service leaders must be willing to be engage. I hope you will take the time to meet with your elect representative during the August recess.