The Wrong Kind of Oversight

by John Lawrence

While most political commentators are micro-analyzing the intermezzo between the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential contests, an important drama is playing out in the House of Representatives that is stunning in the opportunity it presents to Democrats seeking an effective messaging challenge to the Republican majority.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by the aggressive Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), has been firing off letters demanding information relating to the horrific contamination of the water supply of Flint, Michigan. Given the extensive federal involvement in the issue of water quality under multiple statutes, oversight of the local decision-making in Flint is perfectly appropriate. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice are also undertaking investigations into the decisions to continue supplying lead-tainted water to Flint’s largely minority population for two years despite the fact that the contamination was well known to state officials.

Moreover, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, notwithstanding his bona fides as a trash talking conservative who never misses an opportunity to impugn “Washington,” has requested – in the tradition of anti-Washington conservative governors – assistance from the big spenders on the Potomac to remedy a crisis the federal government had no role in creating. Snyder has sought assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been distributing bottled water to the city. (The state government has been supplying clean bottled water to employees in its Flint office buildings for months without bothering to alert the rest of the city to the contamination of its supply.) and asked President Obama to declare a state of emergency so the nation’s taxpayers, with the help of Congress, can provide water, food, electrical generators and millions of dollars in funds to address the crisis. Federal agencies including EPA, HUD CDC and FEMA are already on the ground helping Michigan and Flint officials.

Snyder, who took many months to respond to what officials in his administration knew was a serious problem, accepted responsibility in his recent State of the State address. “No delays, no excuses. We are accountable,” he told state residents, although he noted Flint shared a problem of deteriorating infrastructure along with many other parts of the country (a fact all members of the Congress might want to consider when they votes on major infrastructure initiatives).

Snyder may have been a little late in recognizing and responding to a severe public health crisis, but at least he has owned up to his personal culpability. His admission is what makes Chaffetz’ repeated refusal of requests by Committee Democratic to invite the governor to testify before the committee so incomprehensible. As the Democrats noted in a February 3rd letter to Chairman Chaffetz, Michigan “has primary enforcement responsibility for public water systems in the state,” yet Chaffetz has insisted on taking testimony only from Flint and federal agency officials.A water advisory task force appointed by the governor to look into the Flint water pollution crisis concluded last December that “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.” Apparently not by the House Committee on Oversight, since Chaffetz’ spokesman asserted that “our responsibility as a committee is at the federal level.” Democrats disagree, noting in their letter that if the Chairman continues to refuse to call Snyder to testify, “the Committee’s credibility will be impaired and subjected to accusations of partisanship that will undermine our work.”

For a committee that has found time to investigate not only politically charged topics like the alleged Benghazi cover-up (disproved) and Planned Parenthood’s supposed marketing of fetal parts (disproved), let alone the cost overruns in constructing the new embassy in London, it is a bit of a surprise that there is no interest in hearing testimony from the person who readily admits responsibility for the contamination of the water supply for a city of 99,000 people, largely minority.

The investigative blind spot behind which the Republicans are hiding Gov. Snyder is no minor issue, and needs to be highlighted by Democrats as a startling illustration of why a change in the governance of the House is urgently required. The role of oversight is not to provide political cover for the misdeeds and culpability of officials, let alone officials who admit their responsibility. Yet there surely is no other rational explanation for Chaffetz’ repeated refusal to acquiesce to Democrats’ demands to bring Gov. Snyder before the Committee.

This highly partisan management of the Chaffetz Committee is a pure example of what political scientists David Parker and Matthew Dull refer as the “weaponization and politicization of congressional investigations,” and serves as a case in point for why Republicans have forfeited their right to serve in the majority. It is bad enough that urgent public issues from immigration to tax reform to college affordability to preschool education are ignored year after year by the House. The Flint cover-up, especially in contrast to the extensive (and costly) hearings on Benghazi and Planned Parenthood, provides a clear, understandable, impartial example of the need for new leadership. Democratic Administrations and governors in the past had more than a few bruising experiences with oversight chairmen like John Dingell, John Moss, Henry Waxman and Jack Brooks who did not grant a safe haven to culpable bureaucrats or elected officials simply because they came from their own party. But apparently if you are a Republican state official who has admitted overlooking the poisoning of tens of thousands of your constituents for many months, you can count on House Republicans to shield you from questioning while they turn their fury on federal officials in an effort to pass the blame to “Washington.”

House rules allow Democrats on the Committee, led by the very able Elijah Cummings, to request their own hearing, with their own witnesses, if Chaffetz continues to stonewall on Snyder’s behalf. As Hill veterans know, however, Chaffetz gets to set the time of any hearing, so Cummings may find himself chairing an inquiry during the Super Bowl or some other time when viewership is minimal. Nor is it clear that Cummings will be able to compel Snyder’s attendance, which is necessary to understand what transpired and a bi-partisan response to preventing a recurrence in one of those other cities in which, as Gov. Snyder helpfully reminded us, the water delivery infrastructure is just as deteriorated (and potentially hazardous) as Flint.

Perhaps while he is testifying before Rep. Cummings, Gov. Snyder can thank the federal government for coming to Michigan’s aid in responding to the Flint crisis, just as taxpayers came to the state’s assistance, to the tune of billions of dollars, to rescue (and revive) the state’s automobile industry a decade ago. Of course, including those remarks would require some editing to the Republicans’ stock talking points about the evils of Washington.