Lisia Williams wears a shirt that reads "Flint Lives Matter" as she joins fellow Flint, Mich., residents in an overflow room to hear testimony on the water crisis before a House committee in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

In a hearing this week about the poisonous water in Flint, Mich., Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) tried to blame the lead-tainted water on the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained that, under the law Congress passed, states are in charge of enforcing drinking-water standards.

“The law?” Carter replied, contemptuously. “The law? I don’t think anybody here cares about the law.”

It was an awkward and inadvertent moment of truth. Congress has hamstrung the federal government, giving states the authority to enforce drinking-water standards and all but eliminating the EPA’s power to intervene. This is a pure expression of the conservative doctrine of federalism: States handle things better than the feds because they are closer to the people.

But then came the debacle in Flint, when Michigan authorities embraced cost-saving changes in the city’s water supply and caused mass lead poisoning. Now members of Congress are blaming the EPA for failing to stop the problem — oblivious to the irony that they and their predecessors were the ones who denied the federal government the ability to enforce drinking-water standards in the first place.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified in front of the House Oversight Committee on March 17, and things got a little heated. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

It’s a vicious cycle: Washington devolves power to the states. When states screw up, conservatives blame the federal government, worsening the public’s already shaky faith. Having tied the hands of the feds — in this case, the EPA — they use the failure as justification to restrict federal power further, thus giving more control to the states, which caused the problem in the first place.

This is no abstract problem. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination promises to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency — or the “Department of Environmental Protection,” as Donald Trump calls it — “in almost every form” and to “bring that back to the states.”

We don’t have to wonder what that would look like. It would look like Flint.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA takes a back seat to state regulators. Even if the EPA finds evidence that water is unsafe, it can’t take action until it can prove that a problem is widespread — and until it gives a state time to fix the problem.

In Flint’s case, an official appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) decided in 2013 to save money by changing the water supply, with disastrous results. The EPA had no say. It got wind of the trouble early in 2015, but, by the time it could meet the law’s requirements to take action, Michigan had already switched Flint back to its original water supply.

“Congress was very clear in the law and also in the congressional record that they wanted us to keep in our lane and they didn’t want us to step on states’ rights,” McCarthy testified.

Snyder, whose administration was responsible for the disastrous decisions in Flint, got relatively gentle treatment from Republicans on Thursday while sitting at the witness table with McCarthy. Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused their ire on McCarthy.

“I heard calls for resignation. I think you should be at the top of the list,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.).

Said the chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah): “Wow, you just don’t get it.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) said McCarthy should “consider scrapping” other pending regulations because “it’s clear EPA cannot currently handle the issues on its plate.”

Even though the EPA should have acted faster once it learned of Flint’s troubles, there is no dispute that the state was solely responsible for the changes that caused the lead poisoning. But Snyder, while accepting culpability, said “I’m ready to get sick” — essentially because the EPA didn’t stop him and his state officials earlier from doing harm.

Chaffetz, the chairman, joined this complaint. When McCarthy explained that, under the law, she had to provide elaborate documentation before overriding state officials, Chaffetz was livid. “Why do we even need an EPA? If you can’t do that?” he asked. “If you want to do the courageous thing,” he said, you “should resign.”

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), comparing McCarthy unfavorably with Snyder, accused her of “fraud, denial, incompetence and bureaucratic nepotism” and said she “should be impeached.”

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) accused her of a “coverup.”

Chaffetz called her too slow to implement new rules — an inversion of the usual conservative complaint that the EPA is too quick to impose regulations.

McCarthy responded by noting the “infuriating” aspect of the law — the requirement to give states time to demonstrate that they are fixing problems. “I wish we had yelled from the treetops,” she said. “But there is no way that my agency created this problem.”

No, this problem was created by a rigid adherence to the notion that states will police themselves — and that the federal government should step aside.

Twitter: @Milbank

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