Piping poisonous water into the homes of a hardscrabble Michigan town was a costly mistake — both in human lives and financially.
And on that second count especially, politics comes into play. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) says he's going to need about $767 million to repair or replace Flint's water infrastructure.
And a lot is going to need to be fixed. To save money, the city decided in 2014 to switch its water source from Detroit to the Flint River. But the water ended up corroding lead pipes, pumping water with lead into residents' home. Residents started complaining of foul smelling water that gave their children rashes and made them feel sick, but it took another 18 months or so for the government to do anything about it. By then, the lead had begun leeching into cleaner water supplies, such as Lake Huron. In January, Snyder called the Flint water crisis his "Katrina."
Now, Snyder, a fiscally conservative businessman-turned-politician and in his second term, is in the unenviable position of having to ask the state and federal governments for hundreds of millions of dollars for help. He also wants to expand Medicaid in Flint to anyone under 21.
Democrats are already pointing out the perceived irony.
"Republicans disparage government all the time as intrusive, too involved, and detrimental to our society. Gov. Rick Snyder is a leading cheerleader of that theory," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. "He denigrates government every single chance he gets. But to whom does he turn when he needs help cleaning up the mess he has created? The federal government."
But it's not just Snyder who is in a tough spot. The GOP-controlled Congress is about to be asked to help with the man-made disaster in Flint, and it's not going to be an easy sell among fiscally conservative Republicans watching their backs in an election year.
But to turn down requests to help provide the most basic service of clean water to a mostly poor, majority-black city will almost certainly invite Democratic attacks like the one Reid launched at Snyder on Tuesday.
Members of the Michigan delegation to Congress, led by Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, plan to offer an amendment that would provide $400 million in federal funds and institute more oversight on state and federal environmental agencies.
Already, Republican leaders seem hesitant to take that on.
"While we all have sympathy for what’s happened in Flint, this is primarily a local and state responsibility," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking GOP Senate leader, told the Detroit Free Press's Melissa Nann Burke recently, adding that he sees the federal government helping in some capacity, but not with "a blank check."
The House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on the crisis Wednesday morning.
Cornyn is attempting to help his Republican colleagues strike a delicate balance here. But Flint, which sits about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, is a mostly poor, mostly black city of about 100,000 people. Republicans don't want to come across as insensitive by saying no to people who are literally walking two miles every day to collect fresh water — or to parents who have been told their children have lead poisoning that may lead to irreversible brain damage. There's also a possibility that the corrosive pipes pumped bacteria into the area's water and led to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.
But on the other hand, $400 million is a lot of money for a party that already passed a $1 trillion spending bill this December. And aid packages have been difficult to get through an increasingly debt-conscious Congress — even in the face of large-scale disasters. Although it was for a much, much larger sum of money, a nearly $51 billion aid bill for Hurricane Sandy struggled to pass Congress in 2013. It passed the then-Democratic-controlled Senate with just nine Republicans voting for it.
This time around, Republicans control both chambers, so if Congress approves hundreds of millions in aid for Flint, it will fall squarely on Republicans' shoulders. Republican leaders seem to be debating whether that's worth it and are learning toward no.
The racial politics alone make this a very tricky situation for Republicans, a party Democrats like to ping for its non-diverse voter base. Fiscal conservatives in Congress are going to have to figure out a way to win the messaging battle on Flint if they want to avoid that charge from sticking.
Cornyn told Nann Burke that he thought the conversation in Congress about Flint has been pretty bipartisan so far but that it could get political very soon.
If Reid's floor speech Tuesday is any indication, it already has.