Now that the dust has settled from what seemed an endless campaign season, what will the election results mean to the fire service? To find out, I asked CFSI's Bill Webb, the man who keeps his finger firmly on Washington's pulse.
What can the fire service expect from Obama's second term?
There weren't many changes that took place. The President got re-elected, the Senate remains in control of the Democrats and the margins are about the same, and the Republicans remain in control of the House with the margins not too different than they were Monday night.
You have to put things in a broader context of where we're going with this fiscal cliff and how Congress will address that issue. On the cuts side, you are looking at a potential 8 percent across the board for some non-defense programs like the U.S. Fire Administration and a number of programs in the Department of Homeland Security. That's the bigger concern that we have and hopefully all of this is going to happen in the lame-duck session.
Can Congress play nice this time?
It is hard to say at this point in time. The town, for the most part, remains somewhat divided. I've been here 25 years and it has become a more polarized town. I spoke with one Senator a couple of months ago and he did say that we're going to have to start governing more from the middle and start working together; the moderates are going to have to try to assert themselves more. That might be where you see some of the work that will need to be done.
What are some issues you'll be pushing for during this term?
When Congress left, they passed a continuing resolution that will carry us through the latter part of March. With a continuing resolution you really can't move forward with any of the grant programs — AFG and SAFER — until you have appropriation legislation approved. That is going to be the big challenge, getting the programs appropriated so that the grants office can move forward with the grant process itself.
Also of concern is getting these programs authorized. The authorization for AFG expired in 2009 and SAFER in 2010. During the efforts on Capitol Hill to get the programs reauthorized, there was language inserted into the Senate bill to sunset AFG, to eliminate the program by 2016. That's of utmost concern, and getting USFA reauthorized. Those are going to be the three primary areas of focus for the fire service.
How do you see these things working out?
It is hard to say what they will be able to accomplish during this lame-duck session. Of course their first concern is addressing these fiscal-cliff issues. Somewhere down the line, hopefully, they can get to some of our issues. Otherwise, you have to look at the next Congress.
What you have to look at is not necessarily the number of Republicans versus the number of Democrats. You have to look at the committees and who is going to be chairing these committees. One of our more prominent and active supports, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who retired, will be stepping down as chairman of Homeland Security. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has a lot of seniority on that committee and there are rumors that he will take over. That would bode well for the fire service considering his history of working with us.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been the ranking member of Homeland Security; I'm not sure if she'll retain that title next session or what the leadership has in mind. My hope is that she'll be able to stay in that position.
On the House side, Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has been the chair of the Homeland Security Committee has done an out standing job working with ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on issues. That's where you really got to pay close attention.
Are you expecting any changes in leadership in the administration?
I'll answer that at the 30,000-foot level. Quite often after a president has been re-elected a lot of new faces appear in the cabinet and at the agencies. In those times, the president starts looking for new ideas. And sometimes the best way to find new ideas is to have new people bringing these new ideas.
I haven't heard anything about whether DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano or FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are going to stick around. Fire Administration Chief Ernie Mitchell hasn't really been there that long, so I don't foresee him going anywhere.
Will there be changes to the Fire Caucus?
The Congressional Fire Service Caucus numbers will decrease because of attrition or members got voted out. We'll have to pound the pavement and encourage these new members to be a part of the caucus. When you join, it is not a pledge to support every piece of fire service legislation that comes down the pike. It is more a pledge to learn about the fire service and why there should be a federal role in properly training and equipping our first responders.
What else would you like to accomplish over the next four years?
The fire service sprinkler act; we've been working on that since 2004 to provide an incentive to some of these builders to install automatic sprinkler systems.
The safe building codes incentive act, which would set aside some additional funding for post-disaster grants for jurisdictions that have statewide building codes. Sometimes it takes events as we've just experienced up in the northeast corner to get members' attention on why we need certain pieces of legislation and why we need programs to be funded. You have to take a look at how we can address some of these issues before disasters do strike.
The fire sprinkler incentive act came about literally days following the West Warwick fire that killed 100 concert goers at the Station Club. It goes back to the cliché term that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
One of the messages that we need to keep delivering on Capitol Hill is that if we address a lot of these issues on the front end, we can really save this government on the back end. That holds true with fire, education, law enforcement, you can go down the laundry list.