The 9/11 victim compensation bill special interests aren’t interested in

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Jon Stewart and Retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez following a House Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

He isn’t a registered lobbyist, but comedian Jon Stewart may have already made a bigger impact this year than most influencers in Washington.

Following last week’s fiery testimony from the former “Daily Show” host, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill to fund continued benefits for those harmed by the 9/11 terror attacks.

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides benefits to those developing health issues related to the terror attack, will run out of money without additional funding from Congress.

The bill that would extend funding for the program through 2090, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), is expected to pass the House with ease. It would then go to the upper chamber, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is locked in a feud with Stewart over the comedian’s criticism.

Several New York City first responders traveled with Stewart to Washington to push for permanent funding. Among them was former detective and 9/11 first responder Luis Alvaraz, who, after pleading with Congress, gave his final interview this week from his hospice bed. After undergoing his 69th round of chemotherapy, Alvaraz discovered he had terminal liver failure.

Stewart’s June 11 remarks to the committee, where he blasted Congress for failing to take care of 9/11 first responders, quickly went viral. One day later, the committee unanimously approved the bill.

The viral clip may have been the winning ticket for the bill’s advocates, as it wasn’t getting much attention from many of the usual lobbying powerhouses with tremendous influence in Washington. In fact, only a handful of groups, most of them with little money to spend, reported lobbying on the bill in the first three months of 2019.

Chief among them is Citizens for the Extension of James Zadroga Act, a group dedicated to fully funding benefits for 9/11 victims. Ben Chevat, executive director of the group, registered as one of the group’s two lobbyists as it spent $30,000 in the first quarter. He formerly served as chief of staff for Maloney, the Manhattan congresswoman who sponsored 9/11-related legislation directly following the aftermath of the attacks.

Chevat’s group also hired Duane Gibson, a lobbyist at GovBiz Advantage who pushed legislation that capped the liability for construction contractors affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I think the efforts of Jon Stewart, the responders and survivors who have been working the halls are all coming to fruition,” Chevat told the New York Daily News. “I think that there’s just general acceptance from Democrats and Republicans that this has to get done and it is getting done.”

The Sergeants Benevolent Association, a New York City police officers union that was one of the few organizations to lobby for the bill last year, led a coalition of 21 law enforcement organizations advocating for the bill’s passage. A few more police organizations, along with Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, mentioned the bill in lobbying reports. Unions representing plumbers and utility workers also reported lobbying on the measure.

A few substantial lobbying players jumped on the bill. Representing hundreds of thousands of federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees reported lobbying in support of the bill. The American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group that spent more than $1.3 million lobbying through March 2019, also lobbied on the measure.  

Cognizant Technology Solutions, a New Jersey-based information technology firm, was the only corporation to report lobbying on the measure.

By most measures, the lobbying campaign has been successful. The Senate and House versions of the bill have 43 and 321 cosponsors respectively.

It remains to be seen how the bill will fare in the Senate, where the Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand-sponsored bill has far fewer cosponsors and has to earn the approval of McConnell.

In 2015, after extensive lobbying from Stewart and first responders, McConnell at the last minute included money for the fund in a spending package. Stewart has accused McConnell of using 9/11 victims as political pawns — an assertion McConnell has denied, arguing Congress always includes measures at the last minute.

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