There was a time when the American people could look to Congress for leadership and accountability—when the responsibility was not just accepted, but a priority, especially on national issues which threatened the health and safety of the nation's most vulnerable children. But today the rise of Trumpism reflects the recognition that Congress, a body that increasingly rarely meets, is a body that is earning disrespect.
Few issues have made this irresponsibility clearer than the emerging Flint, Mich., blame game—where in hearings by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, members of Congress called for the resignations of both Governor Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy over their respective roles in the lead-tainted drinking water crisis.
It seems the health and safety of children has become an exercise of sneering at good governance. The Committee offered no constructive federal policy or action to help protect some of the nation's most vulnerable children.
There was a time when the role of Congress was to lead in constructing solutions critical to the country's future: learn, understand the issue, and then offer a solution which could make tomorrow safer for a citizen, a mother, an infant than today.
Former mayor, state legislator, county-elected leader, governor, and Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) once called me and asked if I knew of any way in which to distinguish whether a pothole was a Republican or Democratic pothole—poking serious humor at colleagues who chose to politicize rather to accept responsibility. He believed that as a U.S. Senator, his role was to help—and protect—the American people.
Today, the obverse, increasingly, seems to be the case. The toll of bipartisan Congressional criticism emerging from the House Oversight committee hearings this month has inflicted fiscal repercussions. The hearings have made the goal of protecting children and infants more costly—especially for the Flints that dot a nation of increasing fiscal disparities.
It is a toll, moreover, which is almost certain to impose greater and greater capital borrowing costs on state and local governments.
Standard & Poor's has lowered the outlook on Michigan's credit rating to stable from positive, citing the costs of dealing with the Flint crisis. That will translate into higher capital costs for both Flint and Michigan to complete the cleanup in Flint.
That means the cost of borrowing to address the significant public infrastructure costs to fix Flint's drinking water system will cost more. The consequences of Congressional dissonance will translate into higher capital costs for both Flint and Michigan taxpayers to complete the cleanup.
It might be sufficient to note that the House Oversight Subcommittee does not even know how many lead pipes there are in Flint, much less other cities across the country, where the water has been contaminated by high lead levels.
It remains unclear whether it even cares—certainly not enough to help or interrupt its scheduled vacations.
But the steady drip, drip of Congressional vituperation can only force up the capital borrowing costs of state and local governments to issue the municipal bonds to finance the country's essential drinking and wastewater needs.
The Congressional Committee called for both Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to resign—even though it is clear that both, since last October, have acted to help address the issue, instead of simply casting aspersions.
And, of course, were either to resign, it would almost surely force still further delays—more for the Oversight Committee to criticize, even as more young lives would be put at risk.
The role of Gov. Snyder's appointed Emergency Manager in Flint merits review and criticism: his decisions—as he displaced the elected leaders of Flint—reflect poorly on the Governor and on the manner in which the state's law works.
Nevertheless, unlike the Congress, Gov. Snyder has accepted responsibility—and Flint has returned to democracy, with its own elected officials working apolitically to protect young lives instead of re-election campaigns. None have recessed for Spring vacation to leave the city's children at risk.
For its part, the Oversight Committee has neither proposed nor offered constructive solutions.
It has not levied criticism of the role of Congress in reducing funding federal clean and safe drinking water assistance.
It has not reflected on its own failure, as a committee, to act constructively and responsibly.
Instead it is seeking to pass the buck and shirk responsibility.
The problem with lead in the nation's drinking water is, of course, not restricted to Flint, or Newark, or other cities across the nation. It is, rather, a problem that reaches well beyond Flint: there are millions of lead pipes all across America. But now the cost of Congressional politics is contributing to politicizing, rather than helping America's children at risk of stunted growth and brain damage.
There are an estimated 10 million American homes and buildings receiving drinking water from service lines which are at least partially lead, according to the EPA. None, needless to say, are suspected in the U.S. House of Representatives. But, then again, despite the life-altering consequences of lead poisoning, nor should we anticipate any Congressional commitment to fix the problem and alleviate the risk.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. have spent more than $2.2 trillion in the last 59 years on operations, maintenance, and capital infrastructure of water and wastewater utilities. Adjusted for inflation, that is in excess of $4 trillion. But during that period, federal spending has steadily declined, so that, like a teeter-totter, greater and greater municipal capital borrowing has been imposed on state and local governments and their tax payers and public utilities.
In real dollars, total federal, state, and local spending on capital and operations and maintenance of water and wastewater utilities grew on average 3%-4% per year through the 1980s, and then at about 1%-2%/year since the 1990s.
The steady increase was likely influenced by a growing number of utilities across the country, increasing regulations, and rising costs for labor and materials, among other factors. The Great Recession, however, led to a decrease in annual real capital investment, particularly among state and local governments.
Nevertheless, according to CBO, the more than fivefold increase in capital investment in water and wastewater was largely paid for by state and local governments—capital expenditures which have continued to grow, even as the federal share has continually declined since the 1980's. Indeed, real capital borrowing and state and local expenditures by state and local governments by 2014 accounted for 96% of all U.S. spending on water and wastewater facilities.
Today, after years' of federal disinvestment, capital needs to rehabilitate or replace aging water and wastewater infrastructure in the wake of the ever increasing federal disinvestment has been estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars—for state and local governments who, unlike the federal government—balance their budgets each and every year; yet, at the current rate of state and local water infrastructure investment, estimated at about $36 billion annually, it is projected it would take 28 years to find the estimated $1 trillion of infrastructure costs just for governmentally owned facilities.
Last year, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina estimated that federal infrastructure capital investment (in 2014 dollars) had declined by about 75% since 1976 to $4.4 billion in FY2014—a period during which state and local expenditures climbed,notwithstanding the Great Recession, fivefold from just over $20 billion in 1956 to $105 billion in 2014.
Although CBO did not differentiate between state spending and local government spending, it is likely that the majority of the state and local government spending nationally was actually spent by local governments.
Now, as the nation's drinking and wastewater systems are aging, state and local governments' budgets are spread thinner by paying for rising operations and maintenance.
That is undercutting their fiscal capacity to pay for growing public capital needs, even as Congress seems to be making clear it will increase its criticism of state and local leaders, but avoid any fiscal or moral responsibility.
Yet, if the current total public spending of $36.4 billion on capital were maintained annually, it would take 28 years to fund the requisite $1 trillion of infrastructure costs for government-owned utilities.
It surely makes one wonder how dare these Congressional overseers shirk any responsibility and then, adding insult to fiscal and health injury, go on "spring break" without enacting legislation to protect our youngest and most vulnerable people.