The Fix squeezed into the crowded hearing room where Snyder and Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who is also wrapped up in the water crisis, to give you a sense of what it's like to be on the hot seat in Congress.
The Fix arrived at 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. hearing to find a line of people outside on the street that separates the actual Capitol from the House office building where the hearing would be held. Many were wearing "Flint Lives Matter" shirts or hats. Some dressed up in suits and skirts, others in jeans and sneakers. Many had traveled on an overnight bus from Flint to get here. Officials for various Washington advocacy groups, Blackberrys in hand, shepherded them into line as TV crews, some from France and Germany, filmed the spectacle and thrust cameras into some people's faces.
Once past security, the line extended down a gray marbled hallway, wrapped around another one and eventually arrived at 2157 Rayburn House office, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing room. The people in line at the front said they had been there since 7 a.m. The doors were supposed to open at 8 a.m., but Capitol Police guarded a mostly empty hearing room. (Luckily, Capitol Hill is one of the few places left in Washington where journalists can roam fairly freely, so The Fix was able to flash a badge and slip past the guards.)
The oversight committee hearing room is one of the most glamorous -- and imposing -- in the Capitol complex. Its chief feature is a wood-paneled dais for lawmakers that wraps around the room in a half circle. It's broken into three elevated levels to fit all the lawmakers who sit on the prestigious committee. The last level, reserved for the committee's most senior members, is flanked by two wide wood panels and dark blue curtains that extend at least 30 feet in the air. The ceiling is wrapped with gold-painted engravings, and on the taupe walls hang black-and-white canvas photos from moments in U.S. history. It looks like what you see in the movies.
Facing the dais is a long wooden table that seats at least four. On Thursday, there were name tags and water bottles with plastic foam cups for just two.
But unlike the movies, the room was sparsely populated before the hearing. LeeAnne Walters, a Flint mother who has quickly become the face of the water crisis, was already there with a seat in the front row practically directly behind Snyder. The rest of the public seats were empty.
Outside, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, walked slowly down the hallway lined with Flint residents and supporters. Some in line recognized him and looked up from their phones to take pictures or stick their hand out to shake his. He obliged.
A few minutes before the hearing, the doors opened and the seats behind Snyder and McCarthy filled up with just a fraction of the people who had stood in line to get in. Al Sharpton showed up to sit in a seat reserved for him in the second row. As 9 a.m. drew closer, a smattering of lawmakers finally started to appear from back rooms behind the dais. They took their seats in tall, leather chairs. Only a dozen lawmakers of the 43 committee members had made it to their seats by the time the hearing started. (Indeed, congressional hearings are rarely full; the lawmakers tend to cycle in and out while the witnesses stay seated.)
At about 8:57 a.m., a hush fell over the room as Snyder appeared from a back room. Wearing a black suit and red tie, he walked down the steps of the dais, past the lawmakers' seats and around the table of journalists craning to get a glimpse of him. The dozen or so photographers and camera operators who were crouching on the royal blue carpet between the witnesses' table and the lawmakers' dais sprang up, cameras clicking and lights flashing.
At 9 a.m. on the dot, committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) lightly banged his gavel on his desk and called for this hearing to come to order. He said a few words about the magnitude of the problem in Flint and then asked Snyder and McCarthy to stand, raise their right hands and promise they'd tell the truth under penalty of perjury. Not every congressional hearing does this, but the oversight committee, which deals with highly contentious and political issues, does. Snyder and McCarthy said they would and sat down.
Snyder's hands were trembling as he laid them flat on a pad of paper in front of him, his eyes forward. He opened a bottle of water and took a sip. Every time he moved, camera shutters clicked. Beside him, McCarthy scribbled on her pad.
Chaffetz reminded the crowd to stay quiet throughout the hearing and then turned to the witnesses. Congress normally allots witnesses five minutes to read prepared opening statements, but today Snyder and McCarthy can take as long as they need, Chaffetz said.
Snyder went first. He flipped on the microphone in front of him, picked up his statement, the paper shaking every so slightly and started reading: "Chairman Chaffetz, Ranking Member Cummings and members of the committee: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the crisis in Flint. ..."
And so began a hearing that would stretch for hours, perhaps the whole day, with Snyder and McCarthy in the hot seat for all of it.