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How Flint brought out a different side of Congress

Bridging divides

After testimony on Flint's water crisis, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are both trying to respond, even if they may not agree on how, or how much.

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Leroy Jackson of Flint, Mich. speaks to media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3 after attending the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to examine the ongoing situation in Flint, Mich., where the water is unsafe to drink after corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead out of the city's pipes.

Molly Riley/AP

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This week, the Flint water crisis reached Capitol Hill. Heartbreaking stories from the Michigan city struggling with lead-poisoned water spilled into both chambers and flooded a House hearing room.

Lawmakers from both parties have been visibly moved and outraged by the descriptions of damage – of kids who have been drinking leaded water for nearly two years. Of people having to shower with bottled water. Of businesses collapsing. Democrats and Republicans are both trying to respond, even if they may not agree on how, or how much – and even as some question whether Congress has a role to play at all.

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Take Democrat Dan Kildee, Flint’s representative in the House.

He knows that it’s largely the state of Michigan’s responsibility to manage and fix a problem that began in April 2014, when the city switched its water source to the Flint River, thus corroding lead pipes. He also knows that, technically, the crisis doesn’t qualify for federal disaster relief, because it’s man-made, not a “natural” disaster or a fire or explosion.

But these are his people – all 100,000 of them – and the state is simply not reacting fast enough. And so the congressman, born and raised in Flint, introduced a $1 billion measure on Thursday to help his hometown in the short- and long-term.

The bill includes money to replace lead service pipes, to mitigate the harmful effects of lead on children and families, and to boost the city’s businesses and youth employment. It also requires matching funds from the state.

"I can't go back to the people of Flint and continue to tell them that the federal government won't act because the state government won't act," he said.

The bill complements an effort by Michigan’s Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. The two have been working with Senate Republicans on legislation that would provide $600 million in help for Flint, mostly for infrastructure. That effort ran into trouble this week over criticism from some Republicans.

Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas, for instance, argued that solving the crisis needs to start at the local and state level. If federal help is needed, it ought to go through the regular appropriations process – not be attached to a bipartisan energy bill, as is the present plan. Without an agreement on Flint, the energy bill could fail.

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But other Republicans would like to help. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who is shepherding the energy bill through the Senate, said on Thursday that she would continue to work with Democrats on the issue.

“I share the concern, the heartbreak, of what the people of Flint, Mich., have faced and are facing. It's a crisis. It's a tragedy,” she said. At the same time, she reminded lawmakers, new spending needs to be paid for. She’s proposing a compromise – the same amount of help, but mostly as a loan.

Many House Republicans are also moved – and angered – by the stories coming out of the beaten-down rust belt city, once a thriving automobile manufacturing hub.

“This is the United States of America. This isn’t supposed to happen here,” exclaimed Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah on Wednesday at a hearing to investigate the causes of the Flint crisis.

“How would my wife and I deal with our kids being poisoned for so long? I physically cannot even understand or comprehend what the parents and loved ones and individuals who have been drinking that water have been going through,” said the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Unusually, the Republican-led committee called the hearing at the request of Democrats, who openly expressed gratitude for Chairman Chaffetz’s willingness to look into the disaster.

To be sure, a partisan streak defined the four-hour hearing. Republicans drilled in on the failure of the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats fingered the failure of Michigan’s Republican governor, his environmental department, and the governor’s “emergency” city manager who ran Flint at the time.

But the outrage and concern over Flint and possible nationwide problems was bipartisan. Chaffetz appears willing to call further hearings. On Thursday, Democrats acted independently and invited Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to testify at their own hearing next week.

More than anything, it’s the human element that is impacting lawmakers. Fuming, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland took to the Senate floor on Thursday to complain about the hold-up of Senate aid to Flint.

“We are now bogged down in Washington wonky budgeteer talks” about offsets, she said. “What is this? What is this? Are we human beings? We take an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, but sometimes an enemy is a tragedy.”

Representatives from the Great Lakes state are also concerned about the human impact.

Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has teamed up with Congressman Kildee and the rest of the state’s delegation on a bill requiring the EPA to notify the public when lead concentrations in drinking water exceed federal limits.

Rep. Candice Miller, another Republican from Michigan, has boldly defied budget-conscious Republicans with a bill that would give Flint a $1 billion grant through the EPA to replace its lead pipes.

The bill faces a very steep climb in a GOP-controlled House. In fact, at this point, it’s not clear what Congress will do – aside from investigate.

But Democrats continue to ask: What would you do if this were your city?