Rubio hasn’t thought about Flint’s water crisis yet, but is skeptical of federal action

Flint, Michigan is currently in a state of emergency because its water is filled with toxic waste. Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s administration was aware of the problem for at least six months, but didn’t do anything about it until researchers published a study that very conclusively and very publicly showed that Flint’s citizens were being poisoned by their own tap water.

It’s not as if they hadn’t already figured it out for themselves.

This is one of the most serious issues currently playing out in the United States. Even the most diehard libertarians will concede that while they don’t expect the government to do much, making sure that everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water seems like the kind of thing it should handle. And in this case, Michigan’s government failed in one of its most basic responsibilities all for the sake of saving a few bucks on the short term.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went out of their way to bring the crisis up at the Democratic debate, despite the fact that neither of the debate’s moderators bothered to ask a question about it. Thus far, no Republican candidate has shown that they have so much as thought about the issue.

And one of them’s been asked:

As Marco Rubio said yesterday when asked about Flint:

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In general I believe that the federal government’s roles in some of these things are largely limited unless it evolves a federal jurisdictional issue. So I’d love to give you a better answer on it. It’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and the state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues.

This is a bad answer from Rubio, but it’s also a bad answer for Rubio. To state the obvious, it’s absolutely absurd for a presidential candidate — the Republican establishment’s “serious” alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, no less — to not have an opinion about our country’s most pressing public health emergency. But by starting out by asserting that “the federal government’s roles…are largely limited” he’s actually undercut one of the only talking points that conservatives have gravitated toward since the crisis became national news: the EPA knew about the Flint water crisis months ago, as well.

This isn’t used as a defense of Michigan governor Rick Snyder so much as it’s used as a deflection — Why are you blaming the Republican governor when the liberal feds knew, too, HMM? The problem with this, as Rubio himself accidentally alluded to, is that to the extent the EPA did drag its feet in addressing Flint’s contaminated water, it did so out of a concern for federalism, opting to privately prod Michigan’s state-level agencies to act instead of publicly and decisively forcing change. From the Detroit News:

Starting with inquiries made in February, the federal agency battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law.

Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.

To be clear, the Virginia Tech researchers who conducted the study that finally forced the issue into the public’s eye also told the Detroit News that the EPA should have acted on its own rather than delegate to the state, telling the Detroit News that “At that point (of corrosion in Flint’s water pipes), you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately.” So the organization really does deserve some blame for their delay in responding to the crisis.

However, Rubio’s answer speaks to a larger truth about how a Republican administration would view such an issue: Were Rubio president, the EPA wouldn’t have been wrong to drag its feet, it could easily have been prohibited from acting altogether.

You can’t make it through a Republican debate on domestic policy without hearing at least one candidate call for eliminating the EPA entirely. The REINS Act, championed by conservatives in Congress, would require Congressional approval of every federal regulation with significant economic impact. Rubio, for his part, wants to severely limit the EPA’s rule-making authority. Any of these changes would make it harder, or impossible, to write and enforce rules like — drumroll — the Lead and Copper Rule that is currently being applied to Flint’s water supply.

Rubio’s general understanding of the EPA’s proper role in addressing a city’s contaminated water supply makes it really hard for him (and conservatives like him who are generally in favor of rolling back federal regulatory authority) to criticize the federal government’s failure in this specific case. The EPA stepping in to clean up Michigan’s state-level failures prior to the Virginia Tech study being published would have been the right thing to do, but it’s also the kind of action that Rubio and conservatives like him frequently deride as unnecessary federal overreach.

You don’t get to be outraged at the EPA for not doing its job if you don’t think the EPA should be doing that job to begin with.

(h/t ThinkProgress)

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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