The good news for Flint, Mich., residents who attended the third and final House Oversight Committee hearing on their town’s water crisis was that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy were both castigated on a public stage.
The bad news: The hearing was as divided as ever, with Democrats almost exclusively focusing their ire on Snyder, and Republicans going so far as to praise him. During three hearings on Flint over February and March, only three individual members of Congress have broken partisan ranks in the blame game.
At Thursday’s hearing, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) called on McCarthy to resign, while ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) called on Snyder to resign.
All three hearings in the committee have been partisan tugs-of-war over whether to focus on Snyder’s shortcomings (Democrats’ preference) or the EPA’s (Republicans’ preference). Chaffetz has noted multiple times that Congress has jurisdiction over EPA’s funding, not over Michigan’s state government. Hence, Republicans feel that EPA is the appropriate target.
On Thursday, three Republicans not only defended Snyder, but praised him.
“You’ve accepted far more blame for this problem than you deserve,” Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) told Snyder, adding that Flint’s economic problems date back “long before you took office.”
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) gave Snyder credit for firing longtime state employees, whom Grothman said are frequently “lazy or not doing their job.” Snyder replied that the people that he fired had worked for the state for 20 to 30 years. They weren’t his own political appointees.
“I know it’s very difficult for a governor to come in there and clean house with civil servants, and I’m sorry it had to be such a tragedy to bring their incompetence to light,” Grothman said.
“I look at the gentleman next to you, he’s taking responsibility,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) told McCarthy, hinting that somehow she hadn’t.
Melissa Mays, a Flint resident who drove to Washington to attend the hearing, said she was most gratified to hear calls for Snyder’s resignation, although those for McCarthy’s resignation were fine, too. Even though the hearing was marked by partisanship, Mays said it was productive because it presented an opportunity to put the spotlight on Snyder.
“The people needed to see higher up government actually tear into the governor,” Mays told Morning Consult. “It was definitely needed.”
In truth, both agencies share the blame. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality bears the primary legal responsibility for local water issues. A state-appointed emergency manager for Flint decided to switch water sources, which led to dangerously high lead levels in the city’s water. EPA officials also knew about those lead levels and pushed state officials to take action, rather than directly telling the public.
Snyder and McCarthy both shifted blame away from themselves. Snyder denied knowing early on about the extent of the city’s water problems, even though emails from as early as October 2014 show that his chief of staff was aware of them. Snyder said he didn’t learn about the water’s elevated lead levels until October 2015. Before then, he had heard complaints about the color, taste, and smell of Flint’s water, but had been told it was safe by state officials.
McCarthy said, “The state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete, and incorrect information.”
The Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA to step in if the state isn’t doing so, but McCarthy said Michigan’s foot-dragging made it difficult for the EPA to know when they could legally alert the public.
Cummings summed up EPA’s faults by saying the agency “should have snatched control from Gov. Snyder’s hands” sooner.
Cummings is one of three members who have breached the partisan divide over whether to blame the state government or EPA in a significant way. On Tuesday, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) grilled former state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley over why he didn’t undo a previous decision to switch water sources to the Flint River, which made drinking water unsafe. Amash also noted in the first hearing that he never supported the emergency manager system Snyder advocated for because it took governing power out of the hands of local municipalities.
On the Democrats’ side, Duckworth and Cummings both have had harsh words for the EPA. Duckworth, after calling on Snyder to resign, warned McCarthy, “I’m not on your side on this.” She then asked why the EPA wouldn’t directly tell the public about Flint’s unsafe water. The agency could deal with the legal ramifications later if it turned out that it violated the focus on state governments in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Cummings also briefly broke ranks on March 15 when he criticized EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman for complaints of a hostile work environment in her region. “I’m glad you quit. I’m glad you resigned,” Cummings told Hedman.
On March 16, Cummings told Morning Consult he was concerned about the partisan divide in which Republicans question EPA officials and Democrats question state officials. When asked if the hearings were productive, he responded, “We’ll see. I don’t know.”