US comedian Jon Stewart has scolded Congress for failing to ensure that a victims' compensation fund set up after the 9/11 attacks never runs out of money.
Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, angrily called out politicians for failing to attend a hearing on a bill to ensure the fund can pay benefits for the next 70 years.
Pointing to rows of empty seats at a House Judiciary Committee hearing room, Stewart said "sick and dying" first responders and their families came to Washington for the hearing, only to face a nearly deserted dais.
The sparse attendance by politicians was "an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution," Stewart said, adding that the "disrespect" shown to first responders now suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses "is utterly unacceptable".
Lawmakers from both parties said they support the bill and were monitoring the hearing amid other congressional business.
Pointing to rows of uniformed firefighters and police officers behind him, he said the hearing "should be flipped," so that first responders were on the dais, with members of Congress "down here" in witness chairs answering their questions.
First and foremost, Stewart said, families want to know, "Why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long?"
Stewart and other speakers lamented the fact that nearly 18 years after the attacks, first responders and their families still have no assurance the fund will not run out of money.
The Justice Department said in February that the fund is being depleted and that benefit payments are being cut by up to 70 percent.
"The plain fact is that we are expending the available funds more quickly than assumed, and there are many more claims than anticipated," said Rupa Bhattacharyya, the fund's special master. A total of 835 awards have been reduced as of May 31, she said.
Stewart called that shameful.
"Your indifference is costing these men and women their most valuable commodity: time," he told lawmakers. "It's one thing they're running out of."
Firefighters, police and other first responders "did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity and humility," Stewart added.
"Eighteen years later, do yours."
Australian Associated Press