Democrats have been longing for the chance to put Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in the hot seat over his handling of the water-contamination crisis in Flint. Republicans have wanted to do the same with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.
They’ll get their chance Thursday at the House Oversight Committee in what’s expected to be the most high-profile showdown on the contamination crisis. Snyder and McCarthy are the most senior officials to testify about Flint, and the most battered political targets.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz will waste no time in going after the EPA, according to excerpts of his opening remarks released by his office. “If the EPA doesn’t know when to step in and ensure a community has safe drinking water, I’m not sure why it exists at all,” Chaffetz will say.
“Am I surprised that it’s political? No … I think that’s likely to happen,” said Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, who sits on the Oversight Committee. “I don’t know that that’s entirely bad, in that the public can witness for itself who makes the more plausible case.
“I am disappointed that partisan agendas are eclipsing what ought to be the real agenda, which is: How do we make people whole, how do we keep them safe, how do we make sure children are healthy when they drink water in an urban area?” he added.
Thursday’s hearing could continue a pattern of politicization of the Flint crisis, which left thousands of people sick after drinking lead-contaminated water. A Tuesday Oversight hearing saw a predictable result: Republicans targeting the EPA, Democrats questioning state officials, and witnesses—including former state and EPA officials—trying to shift blame.
In a Washington Post editorial Monday, McCarthy wrote that “Michigan did not act as a partner” in addressing the crisis. “The state’s interactions with us were dismissive, misleading and unresponsive,” she wrote.
In prepared testimony, Snyder will tell the Committee the crisis was a “failure of government at all levels” and that “all of us must acknowledge our responsibility and be held accountable.
“This is not about politics or partisanship,” Snyder’s statement reads. “I am not going to point fingers or shift blame; there is plenty of that to share, and neither will help the people of Flint.”
Snyder will also promise “a complete and comprehensive change in state government that puts public health and safety first.”
Democrats have called for Snyder’s resignation, linking the crisis directly to his small-government philosophy. They decried his absence from the first Oversight hearing on the crisis and a February meeting of the partisan Steering Committee. It was the Snyder administration’s decision to switch the city’s water supply to the more corrosive Flint River, which stripped lead from aging pipes into the tap water.
In a statement, Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings said Snyder “needs to explain to Congress how everyone around him knew about this crisis while he claims he didn’t.” Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter to Snyder saying that 15 current and former state employees had refused committee requests for more information or interviews.
Republicans, meanwhile, have said the crisis goes all the way up to the EPA, an agency they’ve targeted constantly throughout President Obama’s tenure in office. Michigan Republican and Oversight member Tim Walberg said he plans to focus on the EPA in his questioning, especially after witnesses Tuesday charged that the agency had deliberately ignored the crisis. In a September memo released Tuesday, a regional EPA official wrote to colleagues: “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for.”
In appearances in Flint, Walberg added, Democrats had “talked about the water crisis, the [Department of Environmental Quality]. They didn’t talk about the EPA.”
On the national stage, Democrats have tried to make the crisis a staple, even holding a Democratic debate in the city, where both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders called for Snyder to resign and promised to review the crisis at all levels of government. It stood in contrast to a Republican debate in Detroit a few nights earlier, which saw a single question about the crisis (Marco Rubio answered by lamenting that some were “politicizing” it and defending Snyder for taking “responsibility”).
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said he was not concerned about any partisan debate getting in the way of an aid bill. The House already passed a measure—sponsored by the full bipartisan Michigan delegation—that would direct EPA to notify residents of unsafe lead levels.
That bill is in the Senate, where members have been struggling to move their own Flint aid bill. Members eventually crafted a bipartisan proposal giving funds to help any city with drinking-water infrastructure, but Sen. Mike Lee has placed a hold on it, charging that it’s “an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states.”
A Lee aide said the senator had made a Congressional Budget Office-approved offer to Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow this week, but his hold is still in place.
House Republicans on Wednesday also voted down an amendment from another Michigan Democrat, Rep. Debbie Dingell, to add emergency assistance to Flint to the budget resolution.
Ultimately, Kildee said, a little partisan debate wouldn’t diminish the crisis or the push for aid.
“It should be the subject of a national debate and should be the subject of a debate about the future of the country,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with this issue or what Flint represents being part of what people consider when they choose the next president.”