In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan summed up everything you need to know about American politics: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” And the rail industry has certainly fulfilled that idea, spending more than $756,700,000 to lobby the government since 1998, according to data from OpenSecrets. In other words, railroad companies have thrown three-quarters of a billion dollars, or more than Poland’s current GDP, toward currying favor with the government meant to oversee them. This gargantuan figure does not include an additional nearly $100 million in direct campaign contributions over that same time period.
And so, as state and federal officials stumble to support residents of East Palestine, Ohio, after the disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment, and as people wonder how such an incident happened at all, the answer lies, in part, in why the government often stalls to solve many other problems: money.
Take the culprit rail company, Norfolk Southern, for example. Beyond joining its fellow corporations in lobbying the government to strip regulation, like the Obama-era rule that mandated train cars carrying hazardous materials (like those derailed in East Palestine) to have better brakes, Norfolk Southern has also contributed millions of dollars directly to politicians. The $55 billion company has spent nearly $80 million since 1998 on lobbying; since 1990, it has sent about $17 million directly to candidates’ coffers.
The entire rail industry’s spending is largely bipartisan and ever slightly tilted toward Republicans. As far as contributions to Democrats go, the companies generally opt for generically liberal or moderate members.
Some of these donations are especially consequential. Almost half the Republicans on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation received money from Norfolk Southern in 2022; nearly half of the 65-member House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure received money from the company—both Republicans and Democrats. Given that Biden administration officials have admitted that, out of fear of “pushback from industry,” they hope Congress takes the lead on issuing much-needed industry rules, these numbers are not promising.
And the cherry on top of all this “C.R.E.A.M.”? Most lobbyists working to make these giant corporations’ profit-stealing, risk-taking pursuits easier come directly from government work. In 2022, 75 percent of Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists previously held government positions. Some of these individuals worked in the Reagan administration’s Department of Energy, in Senator Joe Manchin’s office, or as a liaison with the Blue Dog Coalition (the House caucus of centrist and conservative Democrats). Some even served in Congress themselves, like former Senators Trent Lott (Republican) and John Breaux (conservative Democrat).
All this influence gives perhaps a bit more color to the government’s eagerness in December to impose a contract onto striking rail workers, whose demands included both necessary benefits for themselves and also prescient safety standards that would make trains safer for the public.
The Trump administration rolling back Obama-era regulations, and the Biden administration still not reinstating them, are pages of a larger story of a nation wedded to capital. Of course, the idea of big corporations buying weaker regulations from our politicians is not unfamiliar in America; it’s a ridiculous-in-its-normalcy dynamic that extends beyond rail, to industries like guns and fossil fuels. Accordingly, just as we are subject to constant mass shootings and climate change–induced catastrophes, we are now coming to terms with the stakes of another pay-to-play-around industry that helps lead to over 1,000 train derailments every year.