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Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting clean water

Why Washington infighting leaves citizens exhausted

Volunteers load bottled water into a truck in Flint, Mich., in 2016. With a similar water crisis now hitting Benton Harbor, Mich., Washington must seem increasingly irrelevant to people just trying to get by, Curtis writes.
Volunteers load bottled water into a truck in Flint, Mich., in 2016. With a similar water crisis now hitting Benton Harbor, Mich., Washington must seem increasingly irrelevant to people just trying to get by, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Washington must seem increasingly irrelevant to citizens dealing with Life 101.

For just one example, turn to a state where too many citizens can’t count on a basic commodity. What must the residents of Benton Harbor, Mich., be thinking as they observe their leaders in Washington debating infrastructure and reconciliation bills? They have been advised by state officials to continue to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth while action catches up to need — the need being attention paid to a contaminated water supply and aging pipes leaching lead.

The city would like some help from FEMA, the National Guard and officials on the federal level, so local officials voted last week to enact a state of emergency to cut through the noise.

If it all sounds eerily similar to the situation that continues to bedevil Flint, Mich., that’s because it is. In that city, after seven years dealing with its own state-caused, contaminated water disaster, after lawsuits and a resulting program to check and replace its lead pipes, after President Joe Biden this summer declared “Never again” while touting his infrastructure package, residents are still wary. And can you blame them?

What happened to all the lessons that were supposedly learned? What happens when a crisis passes from the headlines, and pretty quickly when those affected are minorities? (That’s the case in majority Black cities such as Benton Harbor, Flint and Jackson, Miss., whose water crisis may not even have crossed most Americans’ radar.) The lack of political will to invest in these cities is another column.

Well, what happens is the country moves on to another scandal, real or trumped up.

In the real category, I would place investigations into the hidden motives that drive social media operations, and also throw in the Jan. 6 attempt to overturn an election and democracy itself — in fact, that last one could use more attention. Trumped up? That the Virginia gubernatorial contest may hinge on a white student having “nightmares” over reading “Beloved,” an award-winning Toni Morrison book about enslavement, earns a high spot, especially when compared to the lack of focused concern for the children who may have cognitive impairment from contaminated water.

That is, until the crisis happens to you.

When policy becomes personal

Infrastructure is just part of the puzzle in the bills being debated and dissected in Washington. But it’s one that usually doesn’t get a lot of attention — until the bridge around the corner collapses or the pipe across town bursts, causing plumes of water that resemble Old Faithful to gush high into the skies.

That last situation recently happened in the city where I spend most of my time, Charlotte, N.C. The surprising event highlighted a growing city’s effort to rehabilitate and replace its aging pipes. Businesses closed, households were affected, and, though the water was later given an all-clear, cautious residents were boiling before brushing, just to be safe.

These are the kinds of problems that face most Americans daily. Do they debate climate change? Maybe not all the time. But when they must deal with floods and fire, being displaced from homes they’ve lived in for a lifetime, they then want to know that leaders are looking out for the future.

Though many seniors may not be keeping track of the benefits left in or taken out of the latest versions of the reconciliation package, they understand what new dental, vision and hearing benefits would mean at a time in life when being active depends on having those needs fulfilled.

Proposals to extend the child tax credit are much more than political bargaining chips for parents and caregivers when that money has proved to be a lifeline during a pandemic and employment uncertainty.

Government is criticized as being too big, until a government program is the solution.

Party of no

While all eyes are on West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senators in the middle of negotiating the bills in D.C. — what’s in them and how to pay for them — Republicans have chosen to sit this one out. Saying no and watching Democrats tangle is so much simpler, though any suggestions of touching Trump-era tax cuts for the wealthy or making billionaires pay more into the country’s coffers will elicit Gilded Age-era high dudgeon.

When Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden on Wednesday released text of his proposal to tax the yearly change in value of billionaires’ assets, the better to pay for social safety-net programs, cue Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who said that would discourage them from investing in the stock market and instead spur them to spend their billions on ranches and paintings. That’s a lot of ranches.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “harebrained scheme” that would penalize people who “invested wisely” and compensate those who have “invested poorly.” 

So, we have the spectacle of moderate Democrats in negotiations with other Democrats, playing the part Republicans used to play when both parties would occasionally work together to get things done for the people who sent them to Washington.

No wonder many tuned-out citizens are exhausted by it all, especially when they are dealing with matters of life and death or simply trying to get a glass of drinkable water.

Ask any worried resident of Benton Harbor.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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