Election 2020 and the balance of power for the fire service

Election outcome will influence legislative opportunities for first responders

Just as the coronavirus pandemic overtook the national consciousness, the field of Democrats hoping to wrest the White House from President Donald Trump narrowed from a full stage at the primary debates to one: former Vice President Joe Biden.

Seven months later, the pandemic is again nearing spring infection levels globally, the recently infected incumbent is busy campaigning to keep high office, and over 30 million Americans have already voted.

Union endorsements exposes fractures

Dynamics can change mightily between the elected branches of government after an election.
Dynamics can change mightily between the elected branches of government after an election. (Photo/Getty Images)

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) was the first organization to endorse Biden in 2019.

It seems first responders have always held a special place with Biden, whose very first campaign event at age 29 was at a Delaware firehouse. Nearly five decades later, he kicked off his 2020 run at the presidency at a Pittsburgh event backed by union firefighters.

Local volunteers saved Biden’s sons in a wreck that killed his wife and daughter in 1972. Fast forward to a 2015, when Biden, speaking at an IAFF event, regarded firefighters as a “rare breed,” adding that, “All men are created equal. Then a few become firefighters.”

But the IAFF support has not been well received by all members of the organization. In Philadelphia, IAFF Local 20 made headlines by formally breaking from the national organization to endorse Trump for president.

IAFF Local 20 President Michael P. Bresnan said  several Philadelphia fire companies were shut down under the Obama/Biden administration, and that Trump has provided FEMA grants during his presidency that helped four of the city's engine companies back into service. 

Trump also has considerable support among other public safety groups, mainly law enforcement organizations. The “law and order candidate,” as Trump has positioned himself, got the nod from New York City’s Police Benevolent Association in August, the Fraternal Order of Police in September, and Vice President Mike Pence has held rallies with police groups in Arizona, North Carolina and elsewhere since. IAFF-like internal division even reached police groups, some of whom have openly parted with their unions’ political endorsements this cycle.

One area of commonality between the candidates is how they talk about first responders. Biden noted in remarks at a 2009 IAFF event that, “You put on that helmet, you put on that gear, you jump on the back of that truck, and you jump on that ambulance and you do what you got to do.” He has repeatedly stated in public appearances that he “owes” the fire service.

For his part, Trump has shown regard for the bravery of public safety, rooted in his awe at FDNY’s 9/11 response. In a 2016 interview, Trump referenced firefighters as the heroes and little kids wanting to be firefighters. He has also acknowledged first responders’ work in speeches about the Hurricane Harvey response in 2017 as well as the California wildfires in 2018 and 2020.

Election could change pandemic politics

The balance of power in Washington is really a matter of which party controls not only the presidency, but also Congress – and the power divisions between the two houses within Congress. Republicans inevitably complain when the blue team runs an institution; Democrats do the same when the red team is in management.

If Democrats run Congress and the executive, party leaders will likely be inclined to replenish resources, as supporting the public sector and “essential workers” was a central theme of the HEROES Act. The only holdup in any calculus for pandemic-related hazard pay lay with fiscal conservatives in both parties concerned about deficit spending. But the House was always a majoritarian body. And if the filibuster is eliminated in the Senate, so, too, is the need to appease enough Senators in the minority caucus to secure 60 votes to overcome one.

Further, the CARES Act – the most expensive bill in the U.S. history – enjoyed bipartisan support because of the unique circumstances accompanying its need not as stimulus, but as sustenance after governors imposed public health orders, temporarily halting all or most economic activity this spring.

Pandemic-related economic closures have left governments across the country starved of even operating funds. A second, comparable bill never materialized between when CARES passed in March and now. Months of negotiating mostly between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin followed House passage in May of the intended follow-on HEROES Act.

And a second attempt at a “skinny” version may itself succumb to inter-party concern about runaway spending, giving leaders leverage to get contentious funding demands into an omnibus spending bill – which funds all of government in one bill rather than 12 at a time under regular order – in a lame duck session. That path is also fraught, though, depending on whether there’s a different majority afoot. Lame duck vote counts tend to run affray with embittered members who lost, others celebrating victory, and the proverbial shoe soon on the other foot.

If Democrats retain the House, gain back the Senate and the executive, passage of a bill of HEROES’ scale – about $3 trillion, the most expensive bill in U.S. history – is almost assured, and the fire service can expect provisions to address retention and hazard pay.

If Trump is reelected, his pen will be hard put under pressure from “Chuck and Nancy,” as he likes to refer to them, and with whom he reportedly hasn’t spoken in a year. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will “control the paper,” as current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) likes to say of the position’s power. Similarly, Trump’s known reticence to sign off on a disaster declaration for California again facing a historic wildfire season (having done so on average eight times a month in 2019) is unlikely to change in a second term.

Key grant programs are safe despite political tumult

Congress works best under deadlines, so it should be good news to firefighters that the U.S. Fire Administration and the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs are locked in through fiscal 2023 under a bill Trump signed in 2018. This detailed but readable report by the Congressional Research Service outlines the latest legislative authorization.

The AFG program has seen ups and downs since its creation in the immediate post-9/11 aftermath, but its supports for career, volunteer and combination fire departments remain intact despite concerns about its formulas. AFG outlays decreased after Republicans retook the House opposite the Obama-Biden administration, but appropriated funding has held nearly steady since their reelection. Another CRS report summarizes past program outlays.

Moreover, budgets proposed by presidents have no bearing on how money will be spent. Congresses evaluate them with hearings and promptly ignore them, despite laws adopting their own non-binding budget resolutions. Neither outline influences whether programs like AFG and SAFER are authorized, much less funds appropriated for expenditure.

Election as a gamble

When Democrats came into office as the House majority in January 2019, Pelosi as incoming Speaker was confronted with what would become the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Would President Trump refuse to sign an omnibus and leave a funding lapse in Biden’s lap if he lost? Would Senate Republicans work with Democrats on a CARES-like bill? Would they work with a Biden administration to that end if they’ve kept the majority? This is the calculus facing the nation – and the fire service.

Desperately needed, if controversial, provisions often sneak into must-pass bills like government funding – sometimes indeed to avoid a shutdown. While a losing party may not want to play ball, the victorious party won’t either, seeing the ability in few months’ time to control the paper. Dynamics can change mightily between the elected branches of government after an election. Politicians like to say they have consequences.

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