Today, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on an amendment that authorizes $170 million in new federal spending for the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Last night the House Rules Committee met and approved additional amendments to H.R. 5303, the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, offered by Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) 53%. Included in this second batch of amendments is an amendment offered by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) 14% and Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI) 58% which authorizes $170 million in emergency federal spending to be spent by the Army Corp of Engineers on public or private infrastructure repair projects in “any State for which the President has declared an emergency under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, as a result of the presence of chemical, physical, or biological constituents, including lead or other contaminants in the eligible system.” In short, this amendment is effectively an earmark intended to drive new federal spending to Flint, Michigan.
Members of Congress should oppose this amendment because it is fiscally irresponsible, sets a terrible precedent for future emergency spending, and sets up a conference agreement that will most likely be even worse.
The City of Flint Doesn’t Need Federal Funding to Fix the Problem
Despite what proponents are saying on the House and Senate floor, Flint doesn’t need this money to solve their water infrastructure issues. But with $20 trillion dollars in debt, every penny spent by the federal government matters dearly to American taxpayers. As the Daily Signal reported earlier this year:
“Michigan has squirreled away $386 million in an emergency fund and collected a $575 million surplus in 2015. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has already requested $200 million in relief funds from the state legislature for Flint.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint in January, later authorizing more than $80 million in aid, and has instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in the cleanup effort.”
Furthermore, the issue is fundamentally a state and local issue – not federal. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) 100% made this point repeatedly when objecting to the inclusion of Flint spending in the Senate WRDA bill, both to the Daily Signal:
“If we create a precedent that suggests any time there’s a significant problem with a locally operated utility that operates entirely intrastate,” Lee said, “I would ask, where’s the stopping point? What’s the limit?”
And in his own press release:
“Federal aid is not needed at this time…the people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem. And those public resources are being augmented every day by the generosity of individuals, businesses, labor unions, and civic organizations of every stripe from across the country. The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding….What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states….”
Abusing the Stafford Act Sets a Bad Congressional Precedent
According to a Harvard Environmental Law Review article entitled “When a Disaster is Not a ‘Disaster’ and Why That Title Matters for Flint”, authorizing additional emergency spending for Flint under the Stafford Act creates a bad precedent because what happened with Flint’s water supply is not considered a “disaster’ under law, but only an “emergency” – and as an emergency, it is only eligible for $5 million in Federal funding. The article states:
“Because the crisis in Flint was man-made, and not a natural catastrophe, it could only fall into the ‘emergency’ category. Therefore, Flint received the maximum grant of aid for federal emergencies: $5 million…[and]…because what happened in Flint is not a disaster under law, Stafford Act funds for these programs were…denied. In its response to [Governor] Snyder’s letter, FEMA repeated its rationale for its original denial: additional Stafford Act assistance is not appropriate for this kind of event.”
Justin Bogie, Senior Policy Analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies has also written about the wasteful nature of disaster and emergency spending, arguing that:
“There is no doubt that there are situations where true emergencies take place and additional funding is required. The problem is that there is little to no control over the process and as often happens with any ‘deal’ in Congress, it becomes bloated with additional wasteful spending to gain support….Congress should stop using these bills as an opportunity to increase wasteful spending and use them only in cases of true emergencies.”
Including this Amendment Ensures the WRDA Conference Agreement will be Worse
Including the Kildee/Moolenaar Flint amendment in the House WRDA bill puts it on a glide path toward a Conference Report with the Senate WRDA bill, which contained a substantially worse Flint aid package. According to Michael Sargent, The Heritage Foundation’s analyst on federal spending, transportation and infrastructure:
“The provisions in the Senate WRDA to address Flint, MI are deeply problematic. First, as a failure of Flint’s local government, the disaster in Flint is best resolved at the local and state level rather than with federal funds, as would be provided in the Senate bill. Indeed, the state of Michigan has the resources available to address the issues plaguing Flint. Second, the Senate’s provisions set a precedent of providing additional funding in excess of funds already available through existing emergency procedures and appropriations. If approved, this funding creates an even greater moral hazard for local governments, who can now expect Congress to bail them out regardless of their negligence or ensuing cover-ups. Finally, it creates a slew of permanent new federal funding programs that taxpayers cannot afford. More money and less accountability is not the answer to the tragedy in Flint.”
Given the track record of the House retreating from their positions during negotiations with the Senate, it is reasonable to expect the final Flint language to more closely reflect the Senate version – a loss for taxpayers, fiscal responsibility, and those who hope to slow the growth of government.
As part of the larger negotiations surrounding funding the government, Democrats have been demanding guaranteed federal funding for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In allowing the Kildee/Moolenaar amendment to come up for a vote, House Republican Leadership has given into yet another Democrat demand. However, at the same time, they refused to allow a vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) to block President Obama’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulation that will negatively impact millions of Americans. House Republicans should reject this effort to prioritize an amendment that grows government, spends more and creates bad precedents, over one that would stop executive overreach and protect millions of farmers, ranchers and Americans. Even worse, it is for the sake of appeasing Democrats and ensuring passage of a short-term continuing resolution that sets up an unaccountable lame duck session of Congress.
***Heritage Action opposes the Kildee/Moolenaar Flint Amendment and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.***