Howes: No, Snyder can’t play Flint water blame game

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Don’t expect Gov. Rick Snyder to channel Tuesday’s “we-did-nothing-wrong” crew when he testifies Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington.

Nor will he point fingers and shift blame because there is plenty to go around, because none of it does anything to help the long-suffering residents of Flint, and because trying to pass the buck would be laughable considering the facts.

The evidence of the state of Michigan’s culpability in the Flint water crisis is too overwhelming to ignore. Instead, the governor once again will apologize to Flint residents for the cascade of mistakes, missed signals and miscommunication that tainted their drinking water with lead — and apologize to the American people for an epic governmental failure.

What good the contrition will do at this point, however, remains to be seen. Empowered by investigations, civil lawsuits and tens of thousands of pages of local, state and federal records, sides are clearly drawn for a good ol’ partisan bashfest, despite perfunctory acknowledgment that all levels of government failed Flint.

They did. But that isn’t dissuading committee Republicans from disproportionately targeting the Environmental Protection Agency for condemnation, or Democrats from calling for Snyder’s resignation, trashing the competence of his administration and denouncing the Michigan emergency manager law that the labor-left loves to hate.

If nothing else, Tuesday’s marathon hearing offered an object lesson in the kind of blame-shifting Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy would be crazy to repeat Thursday before the same committee. The entire mess, from Lansing and Flint to Chicago and Washington, is a crystalline example of why so many American voters on the right and left are angry at government, angry at its institutions and angry at the cold, legalistic bureaucrats who run them and routinely shirk accountability.

Even when faced with written evidence produced by their own hands, the likes of the EPA’s ousted Region 5 Administrator, Susan Hedman, could not admit the agency “did anything wrong” in Flint. In the battle between embarrassment and arrogance, arrogance wins in the federal government.

Even when a former Flint emergency manager, Darnell Earley, indisputably occupied the all-powerful office when the city switched its water supply to the corrosive Flint River water, he shifts blame. Really? This from the guy vested with arguably more unilateral power than the governor himself, courtesy of the Public Act 436 Emergency Manager Law.

Even when documents show state officials acknowledged concerns of lead-tainted water, its possible connections to a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak blamed for killing nine and sickening 87 people and traded emails with concerned EPA officials, Snyder has defended the fact that whole mess has claimed just two resignations and one firing.

If the hearings this week can answer two questions still unsatisfactorily answered they will be worth every phrase of partisan grandstanding and ignominy: first, who made the final decision not to treat the corrosive water from the Flint River, contrary to federal regulations? And, second, when did the governor learn of high lead levels in the city’s water supply?

The answer to the second question is as important as the first. Administration documents show that officials close to Snyder — including then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, several on the governor’s legal staff and ranking officials inside the state Department of Environmental Quality — knew of the lead concerns in the water and potential ties to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ well before Snyder publicly confirmed lead contamination in October 2015.

No one told him sooner, even in an off-hand way, of concerns they had been sharing with each other for more than a year? That will be a hard sell to skeptical members of Congress. They operate in a political environment where failing to know uncomfortably hard facts is just as damning as knowing them and failing to act.

If Snyder’s answers diverge from the narrative so far established by administration documents and news media reporting, or if committee investigators produce new evidence that contradicts that narrative, this mess will move into a whole new phase with existential implications for the governor, his administration and the remainder of his term.

That’s why Snyder was set to spend most of Wednesday at the Washington offices of DLA Piper LLP, the global law firm where former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard is partner and chair emeritus of its government affairs practice group. There, firm lawyers, as well as Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen and others, would ask tough, probing, even hostile questions to prepare the governor for his testimony.

Six three-ring binders, each almost six inches thick, contained Snyder’s briefing materials, according to a source familiar with the situation. The governor also met on Capitol Hill with the committee chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and its ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, in advance of the hearing.

Preparation has its limits. The lesson of these kinds of hearings, almost too many to count for CEOs of Michigan-based companies like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., is that lawmakers set the tone, write the rules and shape the narrative — in many cases irrespective of whatever witnesses say.

Snyder requested the chance to testify, in part to avoid the bad optics of receiving a congressional subpoena to do so. In addition to offering more apologies, he is expected to call the government’s Lead and Copper rule governing water quality “dumb and dangerous” and recommend changes. He’ll also offer lessons learned.

Or not.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM