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Partisan perspectives on Flint blame run deep in congressional hearing

March 22, 2016

Courtesy of MIRS News Service

Partisan battle lines over who deserves the most blame for the Flint water crisis deepened Thursday during the third Congressional oversight hearing on Flint that featured Gov. Rick Snyder on the witness stand.

Snyder, along with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, were the subjects of questioning before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The official purpose of the hearing, according to the committee’s website, was to review the EPA’s administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the ongoing situation in Flint.

But from the very beginning of the four-hour affair – which included opening statements from Snyder, McCarthy, committee chair U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) – the respective sides dug in on who they believe deserves the most blame for the crisis.

Republican members of Congress repeatedly went after McCarthy and the EPA, while Democratic members of Congress assailed Snyder and his Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), with additional shots taken at Michigan’s emergency manager law as well.

Both McCarthy and Snyder were urged to resign by multiple lawmakers. One Congress member asked Snyder if he felt the Governor had a “moral responsibility” to resign.

Snyder’s prepared opening remarks featured him asking Congress to partner with him on fixing Flint, and pledged he wasn’t “going to point fingers or shift blame.”

But later, Snyder highlighted failures with both the DEQ and the EPA, saying, “inefficient, ineffective and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.”

McCarthy, in her opening remarks, immediately went after “the state-appointed emergency manager” and the decision to switch to the Flint River, and assailed the state and the DEQ for providing her agency “confusing, incomplete and incorrect information,” that she said could’ve allowed for a more robust response from the feds.

From there, the hearing followed a repetitive rhythmic pattern: A Republican member of Congress would gain the floor, lob questions and angry statements mostly at McCarthy, then a Democratic member of Congress would mostly come after Snyder with questions and angry comments.

In one example, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) first started asking Snyder a series of questions, then talked over the Governor’s answers with more questions.

Finally, he ended by telling Snyder, “Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible, and I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015, you were not in a medically induced coma for a year.”

“I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies,” Cartwright said. “Pretty soon we will have men who strike their wives, saying, `I’m sorry dear, but there were failures at all levels.’”

Republican Congress members went after McCarthy repeatedly and McCarthy was not shy about fighting back.

“Thanks for the opportunity to answer,” she sarcastically said after one lawmaker ripped into her.

Republicans appeared frustrated they couldn’t get McCarthy to directly admit the EPA did something wrong. Republicans tried to contrast Snyder firing and suspending DEQ employees with McCarthy, who said no one had been fired at the EPA.

Multiple Republicans told McCarthy she didn’t “get it” or told her she was wrong, while McCarthy would return the favor of telling lawmakers they were wrong.

“Wow, you just don’t get it. You just don’t get it. You still don’t get it,” Chaffetz told McCarthy after she insisted the DEQ kept the EPA an arm’s length away from digging deeper into the problems sooner.

The most heated Snyder got was when he interjected at one point after McCarthy had been speaking, saying he could only take so much.

He highlighted three emails that he said demonstrated the EPA officials were more interested in talking than acting on Flint.

“I’m ready to get sick,” reading those emails, Snyder said.

From the questions Democrats lobbed at Snyder, the Governor’s existing narrative about what he knew and when stayed intact.

Snyder again reiterated several times that he wasn’t made aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreaks in Genesee County until January 2016, and about the lead in the water problem until October 2015.

Democrats tried to get to the question that has baffled some of the Governor’s critics: How did Snyder’s top aides know about Legionnaires’ disease for months before Snyder knew?

Lawmakers would hold up an email containing his aides discussing the growing Flint problems and ask Snyder: Did they discuss this with you?

The answers would usually be either “I don’t recall” or “No.”

Snyder said he spoke with his staff regularly about Flint water quality issues pertaining to the smell and odor of the water, though.

Democrats also asked Snyder repeatedly about news stories highlighting Flint water concerns. It was U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) who rattled off a series of headlines and asked why Snyder didn’t act.

Snyder said his staff ran those concerns back to department experts, and were then told the water was safe, with the Governor adding today, “that was wrong.”

Meanwhile, on Twitter during the hearing, the Governor’s team tweeted email evidence of the EPA’s woes in responding to the crisis as McCarthy spoke, then later bolstered their own defense with tweets about the Governor’s action steps in Flint.

Republicans and Snyder defenders, as well as Democrats and EPA defenders, duked it out on Twitter during the hearing, and statements issued afterward by Republicans and Democrats also showed the ideological divide on the Flint water crisis.

The Michigan Republican Party declared that it was “clear” that “Snyder has taken responsibility for this crisis while the EPA has continued to deny their role.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) countered with its assertion that Snyder “stepped up his efforts to evade responsibility and blame others for the poisoning of Flint’s water under his watch as governor.”

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