Sorry, Flint, Congress Has Nothing For You

The House and Senate will adjourn this week without having acted on aid for the Michigan city that still has undrinkable water.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring water infrastructure legislation to the Senate floor in September.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring water infrastructure legislation to the Senate floor in September.

WASHINGTON ― Congress is set to adjourn for the summer without approving any of the big aid initiatives that had been discussed for Flint, Michigan.

Several senators urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the weeks leading up to the break, which starts on Friday, to bring up a broader piece of legislation that contains a $220 million aid package for communities grappling with crumbling water infrastructure like Flint.

“Here I was, wishful thinking for a long time,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told The Huffington Post on Thursday. “I’m not criticizing Mitch, because he said if we can find a place ... we can do it, but it just didn’t happen.”

In recent weeks, the Senate has been busy with legislation relating to the Zika virus threat and the opioid epidemic, and the debate over gun violence. Late last month, Inhofe and 29 other Republicans sent a letter to McConnell pressing him to bring the Water Resources Development bill that includes the Flint money up for a vote before the summer recess. But McConnell never did.  

Flint’s water has been tainted with lead since the state of Michigan switched the city’s water source to the Flint River in 2014 without following proper treatment protocols. The new water corroded the city’s lead pipes, and last fall research showed lead levels spiking in Flint kids’ blood. Lead is a dangerous toxin that can cause all kinds of health problems, including miscarriages and irreversible brain damage in children.

In October, the Michigan government admitted it caused a crisis and warned residents not to drink the water, and in January, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency.

Earlier this year, Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, worked with Inhofe on a measure to provide loan credits for any city dealing with a presidentially declared water infrastructure emergency. But the legislation kept hitting procedural obstacles before finding a home in the water resources bill, and now time’s up.

Congress will be gone until after Labor Day, and the remaining time left this session is small given a shortened calendar for the election year. Inhofe said he expects the bill to come up for a vote in September.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on Inhofe’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, told HuffPost that McConnell said it would get a vote at some point.

“He said he was going to bring it up, so I’m encouraged by that,” Boxer said.

Michigan is the only state that currently has the kind of presidentially declared water emergency required for help under the legislation. In August, the president’s emergency declaration will expire, though it’s already been extended once before. Testing shows Flint’s water still has too much lead, and is unsafe to drink without a filter. 

“Thousands of boys and girls now will never be who they could be because of lead in the water,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor Thursday. “No relief for them, zero relief. One hundred thousand live in that city. They were all adversely affected. They were all poisoned.”

Though the problem is urgent, it’s also long term ― even with optimal treatment, every city faces the threat of lead-tainted water until it replaces its lead pipes. In that sense, extra federal help will never be too late.

“It is critical that we get this done soon but it does not take the place of the state government’s need to act and act now,” Stabenow said in a statement. “The people of Flint have waited too long!”

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and other House Democrats complained that Flint had been left hanging.

“In recent months, this Congress has brought forth legislation regarding other crises including the Puerto Rican debt crisis, the Zika virus and the opioid addiction epidemic, but has failed to bring up legislation to send resources to Flint to deal with the water crisis,” the letter said.

Kildee wants consideration of his Families of Flint Act, a package of proposals including funds for replacing lead pipes and providing health monitoring to Flint kids with elevated blood lead levels. This week the House did approve two other Kildee-sponsored measures to help the city pay for pipe repairs and lead testing, but it’s not clear if those items will make it to the president’s desk.

Some Flint residents also traveled to Washington this week, where they lobbied lawmakers to set up a victims’ compensation fund for Flint.

“For everybody else, water is something you don’t think much of, because you go to your faucet for a cup of water, you can just go on about your day,” Flint resident Melissa Lightfoot, a mother of two, told The Detroit News. “For us, we’re not able to do that. We have to go, ‘Oh, I have to go to my basement and get another thing of bottled water because we used all the ones that we had.’”