Now that we have elected a new president, the question is if he will be a strong supporter of the fire and emergency services. The answer is quite apparent. Yes, Joe Biden will support the fire service as he has throughout his political career.
But we need to keep in mind the inner workings of a presidential administration and its interaction with the legislative branch.
While we anticipate much support from President-elect Biden, we need to temper our optimism with the realities of the federal budget process — starting with the submission of the budget to the enactment of appropriations legislation. To succeed in sustaining support for federal fire programs, we must continue developing working relationships with key individuals who will advise both the president and congressional leaders on our issues. This is where the rubber meets the road.
How many times have you heard a reporter talk about White House staff? When you hear this reference, you might get the impression that the staff consists of a small cadre of aides. On the contrary, the White House staff occupies two large buildings: The Old Executive Office Building (formerly known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) and the New Executive Office Building. Hundreds of senior executives and staff serve at the pleasure of the president and vice president. These appointed staff perform various duties including policy advisors. In 2021, we need to start establishing working relationships with the advisors assigned to homeland security, health and human services, WUI, public safety communications and other issues.
During the Bush Administration, we formed strong working relationships with key presidential advisors, including Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin. For those of you who recall President Bush attended the CFSI Dinner and two National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Services. Mr. Hagin was the primary reason for the President’s appearance at these events. He also helped us with other issues, including implementation of the Hometown Heroes legislation that authorized the Public Safety Officers Benefits for firefighters who succumb to heart attacks in the line of duty. Historically, we have developed working relationships with key staff in other administrations, but the task has never been easy, as competing interests vie for their time and attention.
In 2021, we will also need to establish working relationships with federal agency officials, starting with the U.S. Fire Administrator. The fire administrator is the only USFA executive appointed by the president. Throughout USFA’s history, all but one administrator possessed a fire service background, a key criterion for the position. I do not foresee this trend changing with the next fire administrator, nor do I anticipate changes in the interactions between USFA and the national fire organizations.
There are many other federal agency officials we must engage with, including the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Ideally, I would like to see an administrator appointed, like former Administrator Dave Paulison, who possesses a fire service background as well as an extensive emergency management background, which will give the fire service an influential seat at FEMA’s table during discussions on all disaster-related issues. The list of federal officials is lengthy, including representatives from the U.S. Forest Service (WUI), Health and Human Services (Medicare/Medicaid), Transportation (HazMat and EMS), Labor (OHSA), Justice (PSOB), and Commerce (Public Safety Communications) are among the individuals on our list. Virtually all 13 federal agencies have oversight of at least one federal fire program, which is why developing and maintaining relationships across the broad spectrum of the federal government is imperative.
And lastly, there is Congress. As the saying goes, the president proposes while the Congress disposes. Once the pandemic is eradicated and the economy begins to recover, Congress will eventually need to restore funding back to pre-COVID levels, requiring cuts to many federal programs. Our mission — and I mean yours and mine — will be to prevent federal fire programs from being in the crosshairs when Congress considers which programs to cut. You’ve heard me deliver this message in previous articles, but I cannot overstate the importance of it — especially with a new administration and 67 new members (seven senators and 61 new House members).
Be prepared to get engaged in 2021. The essence of advocacy in Washington, D.C. is in building relationships. Let us do it together.