Why was Congress first to hold hearings on the Flint Water Crisis?
There in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday in the Capitol, were Environmental Quality Interim Director Keith Creagh and a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, both squirming some as they were hit by Republicans and Democrats on why there was such an utter collapse of government function in managing the Flint water system and in protecting the citizens of Flint from lead-contaminated water.
Wednesday’s hearing may not have been the emotional-historic equal of the Army-McCarthy Hearings (for anyone under the age of, say, really old, those may – should -- be viewed on YouTube) but it was a fully intense and even riveting moment in the history of Flint’s crisis.
But why was the hearing, the first meeting of lawmakers to question officials on Flint, in Washington? Why have there been no hearings in Lansing, before the Legislature?
Lawmakers have hearings. They can even have investigative hearings. Legislators can have hearings on pretty much anything they want. And over the years, Legislators have held plenty of hearings on a wide variety of topics, everything from budgetary issues to policy changes in state departments to oversight hearings with witnesses subpoenaed and sworn in under oath.
There are a multitude of investigations taking place – criminal and civil inquiries by the U.S. Attorney, Department of Attorney General and Genesee County prosecutor. Governor Rick Snyder appointed a task force to look into what went wrong. The Office of the Auditor General is conducting a review. The EPA is investigating its own conduct and auditing Michigan’s drinking water program.
But all of that takes place behind closed doors. Michigan’s legislators, who could have wrangled some answers in public for the public, so far have not held hearings on Flint.
And let us not forget they could have had hearings going back to September and October when it was finally confirmed that the city’s water system was contaminated with lead. It seems perfectly normal to have legislative committees call up state officials, try to determine what had happened and why, and what was going to happen to fix the situation. Then Legislators could have held ongoing hearings to monitor the progress of what the state was doing and how it was working.
They have not.
In contrast, almost immediately after the crisis became a national story a month ago, the U.S. House of Representatives – which is run by Republicans, the same party overseeing the Legislature – has held a hearing, and this comes after congressional members from both political parties have proposed a variety of financial and structural solutions to the city’s problems.
It is perfectly appropriate for Congress to hold a hearing on the Flint situation. Likely every city with water infrastructure older than 30 years in the U.S. has lead service lines as part of those systems (lead service lines were banned only in 1986), so the problems that affected Flint could theoretically affect any of those cities. Plus, a major federal agency sat on a critical document that could have spurred federal action to help the city, clearly something on which Congress would want answers.
Why hasn’t the Legislature been as anxious to get those answers as well?
Hearings are in the Legislature’s future, we are told. Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), the chair of the House Oversight and Ethics Committee, has said he will hold hearings once some of the first investigative reports are made public in the next month. The Senate Republican majority, however, has rebuffed calls for hearings there despite requests from Senate Democrats.
The public will surely anticipate the House hearings in Lansing, and hope they have some of the same impact as the congressional hearing already held.
A few words at a committee hearing Tuesday could indicate a sea change in how the state relates to the U.S. Department of Education as it develops student testing and school accountability systems.
For the past decade, state education reforms have been designed with an eye to how they would be viewed by federal officials.
But Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston, to the Senate education policy and appropriations committee members, said his plans will consider Michigan first.
“I’m not as worried about the federal law,” Mr. Whiston said. “Let’s do what’s right for Michigan.”
That stands in stark contrast to much of the state’s current education legislation, which was designed to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act designed by former President George W. Bush and to grab a piece of the “Race to the Top” funding implemented by President Barack Obama.
And there is still some residue from that thinking. Mr. Whiston’s comment was spurred by concerns from one of the members that the state’s changes would not put RTTT funding at risk.
What Mr. Whiston did not say is the state has so far seen precious little of that funding, despite not only all its efforts to comply with the federal requirements for the grants, but Detroit being held out by then Education Secretary Arnie Duncan as the poster child for the need for the federal grants.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act does appear to give states a bit more leeway than its predecessor did in designing accountability systems, but Mr. Whiston also appears poised to look more to what state education officials say are needed to improve schools and less to what federal regulations say.
Not that the reforms he said he would be proposing next month will completely ignore federal requirements, because neither the state, nor any of the local districts, could afford to lose the federal funds attached to them.
Iowa has voted. And amid the celebrations among supporters of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and the lamentations of those backing Donald Trump, and, well almost everyone else on the Republican side, it seemed worthwhile to go back four months to the Michigan Republican Party’s Mackinac Conference and see how things have changed.
The most obvious standout is this: What a complete fluke it was for Carly Fiorina to land on the Island during the best two-week stretch of her campaign and captivate GOP activists there only to quickly lose all momentum and begin the slide to what will likely be an exit in the not too distant future.
I can remember some activists saying that no matter what, Ms. Fiorina had secured her place as at least the party’s vice presidential nominee with the way she had knocked Mr. Trump off-stride and developed a presence about her. She had the dining room in the Grand Hotel hanging on her every word and got the most enthusiastic response of the five candidates in attendance.
There was the massive, spontaneous throng that greeted her arrival at the ferry docks. She and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) hit it off and Ms. Miller endorsed her a few days later.
Iowa, with its religious, socially conservative Republican electorate, was never seen as friendly turf for Ms. Fiorina, but she ended up at the back of the pack with 2 percent after having risen as high as third in the Real Clear Politics polling average just after the Mackinac Conference at 10.3 percent.
In New Hampshire, after the Mackinac Conference, the Real Clear Politics polling average put Ms. Fiorina narrowly into second place in New Hampshire at 14.3 percent. A long slide soon followed and now she sits in seventh place at 3.8 percent. Nationally, she went from third place at 11.8 percent to an afterthought at 1.8 percent.
How did the other participants in the conference fare?
Ohio Governor John Kasich put a ton of time and effort into the Island. He skipped Iowa and has put his resources into New Hampshire, where he has gotten some traction and has been battling for second. Nationally, however, he has never been able to move beyond the low single digits.
Mr. Cruz’s performance fit his campaign to date. Nothing flashy, just mobilizing his supporters, delivering his conservative, anti-establishment stump speech and moving on. At the time, he had yet to break through and was struggling with his potential supporters going to Mr. Trump. By November, he was on an upward trajectory, wooing away supporters of Ben Carson and eventually some of Mr. Trump’s.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) won the Island’s straw poll for the second straight conference, but has never really gotten traction.
Then there is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He arrived on the Island still with some hope as the top choice among establishment Republicans. And clearly many of those on the establishment side in Michigan were really hoping he could electrify the activists. He gave a good, but not great speech and eventually was overshadowed by Ms. Fiorina.
His polling has cratered nationally since the conference and now he has to hope for a revival in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The other two top finishers in Iowa, Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio, did not attend the conference.
Did Michigan’s Republican activists get the chance to see their party’s next nominee in September on Mackinac Island? It is still a long ways to go to Cleveland and the Republican National Convention, but at this early read Mr. Cruz looks like the only one of the five with a plausible shot.
During the weekend, the possibility of a Democratic presidential debate coming to Flint before the March 8 presidential primary emerged with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton sort of agreeing on the event.
According to multiple reports, the two candidates have agreed they want a debate in Michigan before the primary. The debate would likely be held in Flint. But there is some disagreement on another debate the Sanders campaign wants in April.
The Sanders campaign says they first proposed a March 3 debate in Michigan and Ms. Clinton’s campaign didn’t want it.
The Detroit News reported during the weekend that the Clinton campaign called for the debate in Flint on March 3.
In response, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager said they have been calling for more debates, including one in Flint.
“The Clinton campaign, after not accepting Michigan, now says they want it. We are pleased to do it on March 3 before the Michigan primary provided the Clinton campaign will agree to Brooklyn, New York, on April 14,” he said in a statement.
However, Mr. Weaver said Ms. Clinton has not yet agreed to a debate in New York in April.
“Why won't they debate in Brooklyn? What's the matter with Brooklyn?” He said.
As this debate on debates was taking place, a slew of Michigan Republicans took to social media to rip Ms. Clinton for trying to score political points off the Flint water crisis.
In recent years, Michigan has seen its share of debates over debates. Looks like we won’t escape 2016 without another.
The bleeding continues for Governor Rick Snyder’s administration when it comes to the Flint water crisis.
No, Mr. Snyder did not personally order up water coolers with purified water in them for the Flint State Office Building a year ago even as his Department of Environmental Quality and Flint water officials were downplaying the significance of a carcinogenic chlorine byproduct in the water that required public notification.
At least, Mr. Snyder told WWJ-AM today he had no knowledge that water coolers had been placed on each floor of the building as an alternative in direct response to the presence of TTHM in the water beyond federal thresholds. And it strains credulity to think the governor of the state would get down the weeds low enough to be ordering up some Absopure, or whatnot, for an office building.
The Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which manages state property, handled the request, and there’s no reason to think it went anywhere beyond the DTMB’s Facility Services and Administration section, which is many levels removed from anything where the governor has direct involvement.
But this is a terrible look for the state, with its employees working in Flint getting purified water for months before the state conceded there were serious problems with the water and began mobilizing to provide bottled water and filters to residents.
Let’s just say Flint residents have little use for hearing much more from Mr. Snyder about him not knowing about something happening in the middle to lower reaches of state government a la the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak situation. The reaction from the #FlintWaterCrisis hashtag on Twitter on Thursday was uniform in declaring Mr. Snyder had ordered up the water for the office building.
There’s no evidence of that, but what this revelation definitely does raise anew is the question of whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in state government.
Someone at DTMB made the decision after getting the notification from Flint of the presence of TTHM in the water that it was only the right thing to do to provide state employees with a purified option to the drinking fountain at the Flint State Office Building.
And based on the documents and emails by Progress Michigan, which disclosed the existence of purified water at the building, there was a conversation between someone at DTMB and the DEQ about the situation in January 2015.
Did anyone at any point consider the possibility that if the water was enough of a concern to bring in water coolers for the state office building that maybe it was time to reassess what to do about the rest of the city? Did anyone in that building, even as Flint’s water crisis exploded in the summer of 2015, think about the ramifications of state employees getting purified water as the rest of the city moved into a full panic about the tap water? Did it occur to the DEQ that if it couldn’t even persuade its fellow state workers at DTMB that the water posed no immediate threat that maybe that wasn’t a tenable position for the rest of the city?
So it’s another round of bad headlines for the governor. And these ones cut deep because it portrays the state as taking care of its own on the downlow while publicly reassuring Flint residents and businesses the water was safe.