The House on Wednesday easily passed the first congressional legislation drafted in response to the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Mich., but its Democratic sponsor said that bill alone is inadequate to address the city’s massive infrastructure and public health needs and renewed his calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.
The bill, which passed 416 to 2, clarifies the EPA’s responsibility to notify the public if it becomes aware of future instances of unsafe water. But the bill does not include the sort of financial aid package Democrats have pushed for in recent weeks.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who drafted the legislation and represents the impoverished city of 100,000, said that $195 million in new state aid proposed Wednesday by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) amounted to only a fraction of the resources necessary to rebuild the city’s poisoned water system and address the health of its residents. He called on Congress to make an emergency appropriation of $765 million to be matched with state funds.
“It’s a situation that requires a response equal to the gravity of the problem,” he said. “The governor has been woefully delinquent in his responsibility to make it right for the people of Flint. … If the governor won’t correct the mistakes that he made, we’re going to have to do everything we can here at the federal level to get people in Flint the help that they deserve.”
Wednesday’s vote came amid new signs that Democrats are looking to seize the Flint crisis to motivate voters in an election year — particularly the poor and minority Americans who might see the majority African American city’s plight as a symbol of Republican austerity gone awry.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton mentioned the crisis at the top of the concession remarks she made late Tuesday as the results of the New Hampshire Democratic primary came in, days after breaking away from the early-voting state to visit Flint.
And on Wednesday afternoon, top House Democrats held a Capitol Hill hearing on the crisis featuring Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, as well as the superintendent of the Flint public schools and outside experts on the problems facing the city.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of our fellow citizens, for the water donations,” Weaver said. “However, this is a Band-Aid fix, and people want and deserve a more permanent solution in regard to fixing our pipes.”
Bilal Kareem Tawwab, the schools superintendent, told the House Democrats that the health and education issues posed by lead intoxication will persist for a generation: “We need to keep in mind that we’re going to be facing this issue for over 20 years. … Five, 10, 15 years from now, will those resources be secured for Flint? That would be my question to the federal government.”
The Democratic push for new federal spending legislation came a day after an effort to attach an aid package to a pending Senate bill appeared to stall.
Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, have led an effort to secure as much as $600 million in aid for their home state as an amendment to a bipartisan energy bill, in addition to the EPA language passed Wednesday by the House. But Republican leaders have demanded offsets to any new spending, and a Senate Democratic aide said late Tuesday that talks had broken down after GOP leaders rejected the latest Democratic offer, which would have paid for the bulk of a $335 million aid package by cracking down on golf courses that claim environmental tax breaks.
Senate Republican aides declined to address the specifics of the Democrats’ offer and said talks are continuing, but the energy bill is now in limbo for at least another two weeks after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved on to deal with other matters ahead of the Presidents Day recess next week.
The pressure to act on Flint moved to the House side of the Capitol Wednesday morning, with the issue dominating a Democratic leadership news briefing that came after a closed-door caucus meeting featuring a visit from White House budget director Shaun Donovan.
On his way out, Kildee waylaid Donovan for a private conversation, and in brief comments to reporters afterward, Donovan said the Obama administration was committed to securing federal aid for Flint as quickly as possible but did not specify what might be the best way to do so.
“It’s really up to Congress what path they want to follow,” he said. “We’re prepared to work with Congress in whatever way they think makes sense on strategy. … We need to get something done on this, because it is a health emergency.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that Donovan signaled that the White House is supportive of an emergency supplemental appropriations bill, though the size of that request remains in question. Also unclear is whether Democrats will press to attach Flint aid to the $1.8 billion emergency package aimed at responding to the Zika virus that the White House sent Congress Tuesday; that proposal has been greeted more warmly by GOP leaders than the requests for Flint aid.
Becerra echoed the need for swift action on Flint: “We need to do something, and we need to do something quickly.”
Last week, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he planned to take a more deliberate approach to responding to the Flint crisis. “You have to ascertain the facts, and then you have to see … which level of government is the proper level of government to take the lead,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing right now, is getting the facts to get to the bottom of this.”
Snyder on Wednesday rolled out his largest aid proposal yet, which includes $37 million in state aid to address the drinking water system, another $63 million in health and educational aid and the creation of a $50 million reserve fund for future infrastructure work. The total proposed state funding commitment since the crisis began last year now totals $232 million.
“Gov. Snyder is dedicated to ensuring the situation is dealt with quickly and thoroughly, so that Flint’s water is safe for residents once again,” said Snyder’s official budget request.
But Kildee said that is not enough, and much more needs to be done on both the state and federal levels.
“We have a responsible party [in the state government], and when we have a responsible party they’re required not just to give out of some sense of charity or largess, they are morally required to make it right,” he said, adding that federal assistance was justified all the same: “These are American citizens and they have the right to turn to their federal government when they are in need, but mostly because I have no confidence nor do the people of Flint have confidence that the governor of Michigan is going to even come close to doing what’s necessary to give these people a chance.”