Since the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, Republicans have continued their campaign of pretending to care about working people, environmental damage, infrastructure, and community welfare generally. But a select group of them—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Ron Johnson—have consistently raked in cash from the top four American railroad companies. Since the 2016 cycle, these four Republicans alone have collected at least $472,000 from rail giants BNSF, CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern.
The rail companies have contributed to other Republicans of course, and to Democrats as well. But Senators Rubio, Cruz, Johnson, and Hawley have gone above and beyond in pretending to care about rail workers and the people of East Palestine.
Rubio, Hawley, and Cruz were among a handful of Republicans last December who signed on to Bernie Sanders’s bill that would have added seven days of paid sick leave to the rail workers’ contract. The bill fell short, which may explain the famously anti-labor Republican senators’ willingness to support it.
Since the East Palestine train derailment, Rubio has spent a significant amount of time calling for Pete Buttiegieg’s resignation. But since 2016, Rubio himself received at least $54,500 from the big four rail giants, while his PAC has received at least $107,000.
Cruz has said he hopes that after Ohio, policymakers will “address the derailment’s root causes rather than simply advance narrow political interests.” (He issued this statement one day after posting a Twitter video celebrating low regulation.) But you don’t have to look far to determine which Cruz is which: Since 2016, Cruz has received at least $32,500 from the big four rail giants, while his PAC has received nearly $100,000 from them.
And Cruz has done his best to earn the corporate cash. In 2021, he co-sponsored legislation narrowing the amount of time agencies have to complete environmental reviews of proposed federal action, and assigning penalties to agencies that don’t comply with those timelines. Cruz also pushed a bill in the same Congress, alongside Senators John Kennedy and Kevin Cramer, to prohibit the Department of Transportation from issuing any regulation to limit the transportation of liquefied natural gas by rail.
Nearly two weeks after the East Palestine train derailment, Hawley sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency expressing his supposed concern for “the health, safety, and well-being” of those affected. He has since complained about corporations, the EPA, and Buttigieg. Meanwhile, his Fighting for Missouri PAC received $3,000 from the aptly named Norfolk Southern Corporation Good Government Fund and $10,000 from BNSF before the 2020 election. Hawley also received a personal $2,000 donation from Norfolk Southern board member Thomas D. Bell Jr., during the 2018 cycle. As Missouri attorney general, Hawley was among the Republican officials who helped weaken Obama-era water protections.
Johnson has sent out multiple fundraising emails about the East Palestine derailment, feigning concern for the community before shamelessly asking voters to pay off his campaign debts. And again, since 2016, Johnson received at least $53,500 from the big four companies, while his PAC pulled in $114,000 from them.
One of the few rail-related bills Johnson co-sponsored was backed by the Association of American Railroads and sought to delay the industry-wide implementation of a monitoring system to help prevent train collisions and derailments.
Again, these Republicans aren’t alone. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has still refused to declare a statewide emergency or disaster, has received at least $29,000 from Norfolk Southern since 2018, as well as another $2,000 from CSX.
And as TNR has reported, rail corporations’ influence is also cross-partisan. Hakeem Jeffries, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition’s PAC, Joe Manchin, Jim Clyburn, and Sean Patrick Maloney were among the many 2022 election recipients of funds from Norfolk Southern’s “Good Government Fund.”
But Republicans’ guilt is particular, insofar as their purported concern for the derailment lies in direct opposition to their fundamental ideology of cutting regulation. While corporate greed pervades both parties, conservative regulation-cutting ideology is much more foundational to the Republican political project.
Accordingly, if Democratic leadership wants to genuinely present the party as an alternative to Republicans beset by the ills of regulatory capture, they ought to prove which party is more interested in carrying out governance.
And the contrast is already on display. Representatives Ro Khanna and Chris Deluzio have introduced legislation to expand the definition of “high-hazard flammable trains” and ensure reforms like Obama-era braking updates would apply to trains like the derailed one in East Palestine. Meanwhile, conservatives are by and large offering no solutions beyond lip service to the people, and favors to the corporations lining their pockets.