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Here’s How Much the Largest U.S. Rail Company Has Paid Politicians Since East Palestine

BNSF is busy paying politicians, and meanwhile, another one of its trains just derailed in Washington.

David Ryder/Getty Images
Emergency response personnel work at the scene of a derailed BNSF train carrying crude oil on December 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington.

On Thursday, a BNSF train derailed on the Swinomish reservation in Washington state, spilling some 5,000 gallons of diesel. No one appears hurt after the derailment. But it only adds to the over 1,000 derailments that happen every year in America—any of which could turn into the next East Palestine, as lax rules allow toxic trains to move sans regulation and corporations continue making trains longer and crews smaller.

Since the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a lot of focus over the last month has been on Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the disaster. But Thursday’s news serves as a reminder that issues in the rail industry are not limited to one company. In the past month, BNSF, the largest rail company in the United States, has not been shy about its efforts to block the growing push for rail regulation.

As Sludge has reported, BNSF led the rail industry in contributions to state candidates last year with $6.8 million spent. It was also the leader in state lobbying, spending another $12.7 million since 2003.

And since the disaster in East Palestine on February 3, BNSF’s spending hasn’t seemed to slow down.

After the Norfolk Southern train derailment, BNSF’s political action committee spent the rest of the month throwing $15,000 a piece to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The company sent $5,000 to the Association of American Railroads, a group that aggressively lobbies Congress on behalf of America’s rail giants.

BNSF also donated $2,500 to Republican Representative Sam Graves, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The donation is not an aberration. During the 2022 election cycle, Graves was the leading recipient of donations from the railroad industry—more than the other 434 members of the House.

All this while Congress now considers bipartisan legislation to enact industry-wide safety measures on railroads.

Just one day before the Ohio derailment, BNSF also donated $1,000 to North Dakota’s House Republican leadership, as well as to its Senate Republican Caucus fund. What may sound random is actually part of an ongoing relationship with North Dakota’s congressional delegation. One of at-large Representative Kelly Armstrong’s top contributors is BNSF, which has given the Republican member of Congress $25,000. Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of BNSF, has given Senators John Hoeven $35,000 and Kevin Cramer $25,000.

And money talks. Hoeven has seemingly expressed little public concern about the rail industry since the East Palestine derailment. In 2021, however, he, Cramer, and Armstrong did send a letter to the Surface Transportation Board advocating for the Canadian Pacific, or CP, and Kansas City Southern, or KCS, merger. As The American Prospect reports, Hoeven was rewarded with $3,000 from the Association of American Railroads, which includes CP, KSC, and BNSF as members.

As far as Cramer goes, he applauded the merger between CP and KCS on Wednesday. Since the East Palestine derailment, he’s used the accident to advocate for building more pipelines, rather than making railroads safer. When asked about a bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass railroad reform, Cramer expressed a fairly lax analysis of how he and other Republicans felt. “Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Sign me up,’” he told The Washington Post. “I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ either.”

Meanwhile, Cramer has previously signed off on a bill to prohibit the Department of Transportation from issuing any regulation to limit the transportation of liquefied natural gas by rail.

Cramer, Hoeven, and Armstrong all voted against providing rail workers paid sick leave days.

Norfolk Southern has been under a magnifying glass since one of its trains disastrously derailed in East Palestine—and for good reason. But let BNSF’s unbashful spending campaign serve as a reminder that the wider industry is ruthless and can readily buy more lenience if attention strays elsewhere.

Georgia House Passes Bill Banning Gender-Affirming Care for Trans Kids

Georgia is on track to become the ninth state blocking gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

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Georgia Capitol building

The Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday banning gender-affirming care for minors, putting it on track to become the ninth state to target transgender youth.

The bill passed by a vote of 96–75 and now goes to the Senate. The Republican-controlled chamber already passed a previous version of the measure and so is likely to pass the amended one too.

If it becomes law, the bill would ban hormone therapy and transition-related surgeries for anyone under the age of 18, with proponents and the bill text arguing that doing so would protect children.

Major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support giving gender-confirming care to children, deeming it medically necessary and even lifesaving.

Democratic Representative Omari Crawford slammed the measure ahead of the vote, arguing that passing it would essentially be the same as the chamber making medical decisions. “We are not doctors, we are lawmakers,” he said. “Voting for this bill would make us hypocrites.”

While debating the bill, several of the representatives who back it cited data that is outdated and inaccurate, writer Erin Reed pointed out. Republicans also insisted that there are no studies that show whether gender-affirming care has a positive effect.

This is not true: Multiple studies, including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine and another released by the Journal of Adolescent Health, have found that trans and nonbinary teenagers who receive gender-affirming care have significantly lower rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide or suicide attempts.

What you just heard is disinformation,” Democratic Representative Sam Park said of his Republican colleagues’ arguments. “You are not protecting children by passing this bill. You are inflicting harm.

“You are passing this bill in your political self-interest.”

Other Democrats pointed out the hypocrisy of barring parents from making decisions about their children’s welfare while insisting parents had the right to decide what topics kids study in school.

Georgia is part of a much larger wave of Republican-led states seeking to dramatically curtail the rights of gender minorities. The bills don’t just focus on trans minors: Other bills would attack drag performances, prevent people from changing their IDs to reflect their gender identity, or even set a legal definition of gender to exclude trans and nonbinary people.

The List of Senators Who Voted Not to Repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq War Authorizations

Unclear why the list on this AUMF vote is this long.

Capitol Building
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Senate voted 68–27 to advance legislation that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, against Iraq.

Here is a list of every senator—all Republicans—who voted against advancing the legislation:

  • Marsha Blackburn
  • John Boozman
  • Katie Britt
  • Shelley Moore Capito
  • John Cornyn
  • Tom Cotton
  • Mike Crapo
  • Joni Ernst
  • Deb Fischer
  • Lindsey Graham
  • Bill Hagerty
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith
  • John Neely Kennedy
  • James Lankford
  • Markwayne Mullin
  • Pete Ricketts
  • James Risch
  • Mitt Romney
  • Mike Rounds
  • Marco Rubio
  • Rick Scott
  • Tim Scott
  • Dan Sullivan
  • John Thune
  • Thom Tillis
  • Tommy Tuberville
  • Roger Wicker

Republicans John Barrasso, Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell, as well as Democrats Dianne Feinstein and John Fetterman, were absent.

Senate Moves To Finally Repeal 1991 and 2002 Iraq War Authorizations

The symbolic AUMF vote comes ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The sign reads: End the War Now.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
An anti-war protester holds a sign up in front of the Capitol on September 15, 2007.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 68–27 to advance legislation that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, against Iraq.

The bipartisan legislation seeks to eliminate the authorizations that opened the door for the Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush, and the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Monday will mark 20 years since the 2003 invasion.

Repealing military authorizations has been an ongoing struggle. In June 2021, the House voted 268–161 to roll back the 2002 AUMF but the effort fizzled away in the Senate.

The 2001 AUMF after September 11, however, is untouched by this legislation. In its endorsement of the legislation to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations, the Biden administration noted that the U.S. “conducts no ongoing military activities that rely primarily” on the two authorizations. “Repeal of these authorizations would have no impact on current U.S. military Operations,” the administration notes.

The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify U.S. action in Afghanistan, Cuba, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, among others.

Thursday’s advancement to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations follows the House last week rejecting a War Powers Resolution that would have required a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. Only 56 Democrats and 47 Republicans voted in favor of the resolution.

So while the move to advance the legislation is encouraging, it’s worth noting that the advancement is largely symbolic. Which is not to say it’s futile: Symbols, especially for a country in which so much violence has been spurred by them, are still significant. The last time Congress repealed a war authorization was in 1971 when it voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that provided authority for the Vietnam War.

Ideally, the legislation will continue advancing, be signed by Biden promptly, and even galvanize support to confront the 2001 AUMF. At the same time, it’s already been more than 30 years since the first authorization, and it still hasn’t been repealed. Before considering ideal outcomes, pressure will need to be maintained at least to repeal this first pair of authorizations. For now, it’s one bite at a time—it’s just prudent we stay hungry enough to keep going.

North Dakota Judges Uphold Pause on Abortion Ban, Citing “Fundamental Right” to Lifesaving Procedure

The ruling keeps in place a temporary block against the state’s near-total abortion ban.

Dave Kolpack/AP/Shutterstock
An abortion clinic that for nearly 25 years operated on a busy street in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, moved to this commercial building in an industrial area in neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota.

The North Dakota Supreme Court has upheld up a decision to temporarily block the state’s near-total abortion ban. The court also stated that residents have a “fundamental right” to abortions that preserve pregnant people’s health.

The majority opinion denied Attorney General Drew Wrigley’s request to remove a temporary injunction against a trigger law that would have enacted the state’s abortion ban after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In 2007, the state passed a bill that would outlaw abortion within 30 days if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned Roe v. Wade. Last June, the bill was triggered by Dobbs v. Jackson, which indeed overturned the landmark case.

The Red River Women’s Clinic, formerly the state’s only abortion provider, sued Wrigley to stop the ban, claiming that the state’s constitution grants residents the right to an abortion. Last summer, the clinic moved from Fargo, North Dakota, to nearby Minnesota town, Moorhead, where abortion remains legal.

A county judge had temporarily blocked the ban while the case continued. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the county judge’s injunction.

Wrigley had appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to remove the injunction, on the grounds that the Red River Women’s Clinic and other plaintiffs “failed to prove they have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” that they would “suffer irreparable injury,” that there would be “harm to other interested parties,” or that “the effect on the public interest” weighs in favor of a temporary pause on the ban.

The Supreme Court denied Wrigley’s appeal, claiming that, in fact, the clinic did demonstrate “likely success on the merits,” conceding that “there is a fundamental right to an abortion” in “life-saving and health-preserving circumstances.” The Court cited law as far back as 1877 to show precedent for legalized life-preserving abortion, in order to state that, in 2023, people have the right to such a procedure.

This post has been updated.

Janet Yellen Trashes GOP Debt Ceiling Plan as “Recipe for Economic and Financial Catastrophe”

The treasury secretary did not mince words on the Republican plan.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seated in the Capitol
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Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Thursday slammed the Republican plan for what the United States should do if it hits the debt limit.

The GOP has refused to lift the debt ceiling until major budget cuts are made. Instead, House Republicans introduced a proposal last week that would order the Treasury to prioritize payments on government debt and Social Security should the U.S. reach its debt maximum. Democrats have rejected the measure.

“Our systems are built to pay all of our bills on time and not to pick and choose which bills to pay,” Yellen told the Senate Finance Committee. “There is a reason that treasury secretaries of both parties have rejected this incredibly risky and dangerous idea.”

I cannot give any assurances about the technical feasibility of such a plan,” she continued. “It would be an exceptionally risky, untested, and radical departure from normal payment practices of agencies across the federal government.”

Republicans have made clear they are willing to hold the debt ceiling hostage in order to cut costs in the federal budget. They proposed another plan last week that would slash funding for student debt relief, climate change policy, and IRS enforcement, among other things.

But Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have said they refuse to compromise on the debt ceiling, setting up a protracted battle. If the debate drags out too long, the United States could be in serious trouble. The government already hit the debt ceiling in January, and Yellen has previously warned the U.S. could default on its debt by the summer if the cap isn’t raised.

“It’s simply a recipe for economic and financial catastrophe to think we can pay some of our bills and not all of them,” Yellen said Thursday.

U.S. Maternal Mortality Rates Skyrocketed in 2021, in Sign That U.S. Is “Not Faring All That Well”

A new CDC report reveals the spike in maternal deaths in the United States, especially among Black Americans.

A pregnant person with their hand over their protruding belly
Camylla Battani/Unsplash

Maternal mortality in the United States shot up by 40 percent in 2021, one of the worst rates in the country’s history, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. already has the worst maternal mortality rate among developed nations. These are deaths that occur up to 42 days after the end of the pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization.

In 2021, 1,205 people died of “maternal causes” in the U.S., at a rate of 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, the CDC report found.

In comparison, 861 people died of maternal causes in 2020, at a rate of 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Things were much worse for Black people, who suffered 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births—nearly triple the rate for white people. From 2018 to 2021, Black people consistently had a much higher rate of maternal mortality than any other ethnic group, the CDC report showed.

The report shows the U.S. actually has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. Data from the WHO showed that high-income nations had an overall rate of 12 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020, while low-income countries had a rate of 430 deaths per 100,000 live births. Nearly all of these deaths could have been prevented.

The CDC report’s author, Donna Hoyert, warned that it’s hard to compare rates of maternal deaths between countries because of different data-tracking methods. But the U.S. is “usually not faring all that well,” she told NPR.

Hoyert, a scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics, said the rise in maternal deaths could be linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had some forewarning … that it looked like maternal mortality rates were increasing during this pandemic period,” she said, noting that maternal deaths also increased from 2019 to 2020.

She also pointed out that Covid deaths in 2021 shifted to younger people, who are more likely to get pregnant.

Hoyert was optimistic that maternal deaths had peaked in 2021 and were starting to go down, but other health experts worry that there are other circumstances that will make the numbers worse. Hospitals and other health care providers are still struggling with a worker shortage, making it harder for people to get care.

Abortion restrictions that are increasing throughout the country could also increase maternal deaths. These regulations could delay people’s ability to get care for pregnancy complications.

A study released in November by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that if abortion is banned nationwide, maternal mortality will rise 24 percent. Maternal mortality among Black people will shoot up 39 percent. But Republican lawmakers, who insist they are saving lives, continue to introduce bill after bill limiting access to abortion.

A Viral Moment on the Definition of “Woke” Reveals All You Need to Know About the Right’s Attacks

Conservative author Bethany Mandel’s struggle to define the word “woke” spoke volumes.


“This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.” Right-wing commentator Bethany Mandel’s clairvoyance proved stronger than her ability to define a word she, in her own words, wrote a whole book chapter on.

Mandel’s comments came Tuesday on Rising, a show hosted by Briahna Joy-Gray and Robby Soave, after Gray asked Mandel to define the word “woke.”

“So, I mean, woke is,” Mandel began. “Sort of the idea that, uh, um … I-,” she continued, conceding the moment’s potential for virality. “Woke is something that’s very hard to define, and we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it,” referring to a book about “the Left and their woke indoctrinators” that she co-wrote.

“It is sort of the understanding that we need to re-, totally reimagine and re-, re-, redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression,” she said before pausing. “Sorry, it’s hard to explain in a 15-second sound bite,” before Gray assured her she could take her time if she wanted.

The right has come to amorphously attach the word “woke” pejoratively to everything from deregulated collapsing banks and derailing trains and electric stoves to LGBTQ people’s existence and even the cold, hard facts of how Breonna Taylor was killed. In other words, it’s not just an umbrella term for the already hollow, oft-complained-about “political correctness.” It just means “anything I don’t like” (and some of those things might not be things I can say out loud—unless I want to get canceled by the Woke Mob).

This differs greatly from how the term was used in the early twentieth century, as part of the Black struggle and calls for greater political and social consciousness. Since then, the term “staying woke” has come to refer to a broader awareness of one’s place within a system; some people have even used it in humor, joking about “staying woke,” for example, about tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories.

On Wednesday, after her comments did indeed go viral, Mandel claimed that Gray allegedly made comments “demeaning parents in general in colorful and nasty terms” on a hot mic before the show went to air. Mandel said that as a mother of six, the comments apparently threw her off her game; she noted that this was not an excuse, just a reality of being human.

She went on to finally offer what she considers the “actual definition” of “wokeness” a day after her verbal stumble. “Wokeness,” Mandel claimed, is “a radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the end point, enforced by an angry mob.”

Not only is her definition steeped in right-wing cultural angst, it’s so broad that you wouldn’t be blamed for imagining it could cover other groups, like say the January 6 rioters.

But the issue here is not just about Mandel using “woke” as a catchall term to mean “everything she doesn’t like.” It’s not even that she fumbled with the definition; all people deserve generosity, and by no means should anyone be expected to be perfect all the time.

But Mandel’s self-assurance in offering an “actual definition” of woke falls short of exhibiting any level of humility that would welcome such generosity. Beyond revealing how hollow the right-wing’s deployment of the word “woke” really is, it displays the amount of self-righteousness needed to offer a made-up definition of a word rooted in decades-long Black struggle and used (even as a joke) to mean awareness about anything bigger than oneself.

It’s not just that the modern right uses the term to conceal deeper prejudices or inflammatory beliefs, it’s that the use embodies a deep-seated ego that is difficult to break through. How can someone be genuinely debated when they do not have an ounce of intellectual humility?

GOP Rep. Andy Ogles Seems to Have Kept $25,000 From a GoFundMe for a Child Burial Garden

The freshman Republican raised the money using a photo of his stillborn child.

Representative Andy Ogles close-up
Francis Chung/POLITICO/AP Images
Representative Andy Ogles

Tennessee Representative Andy Ogles appears to have kept money raised through a charitable GoFundMe event, making him the second freshman Republican member of Congress in hot water over dubious fundraising efforts.

An investigation by NewsChannel5 found that Ogles set up a GoFundMe in 2014 after his son was stillborn. Ogles said he wanted to build a garden where families could bury their stillborn children and sit on benches by the gravestones. The GoFundMe raised almost $25,000, but the garden was never built.

GoFundMe confirmed that Ogles received the money. He declined to answer any of NewsChannel5’s questions about what happened to the funds:

“Congressman, this doesn’t have to be a story if you just offer some evidence it went for a good cause,” we told him, as he got into a truck and slammed the door.

Ogles had told The Tennessean in 2015 that “burials are heavily regulated,” preventing them from buying all the plots necessary to start the garden. He promised that none of the money had been spent.

The funeral director of Williamson Memorial Funeral Home was quoted in the same story saying she planned to meet with the Ogles family to help organize their plans. But eight years later, she told NewsChannel5, the family never followed up with her.

One donor, speaking anonymously, said he asked Ogles what happened to the money and, when he didn’t get a clear answer, asked for a refund. This donor got his money back, but others said they were not given the same option.

Ogles is already under fire for appearing to lie about his background. Another NewsChannel5 investigation revealed that although the lawmaker says he studied “policy and economics,” his college transcript shows that Ogles majored in liberal studies and actually failed the one economics class he took.

The Tennessee Republican isn’t the first member of Congress seemingly making up parts of their background. One of George Santos’s many falsehoods is that in May 2016, the New York representative allegedly raised $3,000 for a homeless and disabled veteran’s service dog—only to take the money and run.

Santos also appears to have lied that his mother survived 9/11 (she was not even in the country), that his grandparents fled the Holocaust, and that four of his employees were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting, among many, many other examples.

Florida Representative Anna Paulina Luna has also claimed Jewish heritage, but not only does she appear to have no ties to Judaism, her grandfather may have served in the Nazi army.

Instead of Fixing an Already Broken Industry, Government Approves Another Rail Merger

The merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern comes as East Palestine, Ohio, is still recovering from a disastrous train derailment.

Whitney Curtis/Bloomberg/Getty Images
A Kansas City Southern railway locomotive passes through Kansas City, Missouri.

After a Norfolk Southern derailment crippled East Palestine, Ohio, and after Congress had its first hearing taking the company to task for industry corruption, federal regulators on Wednesday approved the first major U.S. corporate railroad merger in more than two decades: Canadian Pacific’s $31 billion acquisition of Kansas City Southern.

The merger combines the two smallest of the largest railroad companies in the country; the combined duo will now reduce the number of Class I freight railroads from seven down to six. Moreover, the merger of the two will create the only railroad that links Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

Previously, Canadian National railroad had attempted to buy Kansas City Southern for $33.6 billion, but the plan fell through after the Surface Transportation Board rejected part of the merger plan.

While workers and regulators aim to get a hold on a runaway industry driven by a practice known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, that has cut jobs and made trains bigger and bigger—thus making the whole industry less safe—it’s worth noting the relevance of this consolidation.

In 2011, billionaire investor Bill Ackman was undergoing a proxy battle with the railroad’s board of directors. He won and installed Hunter Harrison—a railway executive who pioneered PSR at the smaller Illinois Central Railroad—as president and CEO of Canadian Pacific. Once there, he continued his PSR regime, further spurring the industry to be more profit-driven and less safety-oriented.

Now one of the test subjects of PSR becomes another emblem of consolidation, which opponents worry will lead to further job losses and fewer consumer choices in an already consolidated industry.

While proponents say the merger will allow for more shipments and a stronger linkage between the three nations in North America, there’s surely reason for scrutiny. Existing debilitating conditions for workers and a status quo of over 1,000 derailments a year does not offer trust in the industry. A Surface Transportation Board analysis also found that the merger would increase the deployment of longer trains and more tank cars carrying hazardous materials, and even increase the already high risk of train derailments.

There’s also the matter of worker negotiations. Last year, the Biden administration imposed a rail contract on workers that left them with no paid sick leave. On the same day that the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment to add paid sick leave days to the negotiations, Canada announced it would offer 10 days of paid sick leave to workers in the federally regulated private sector—which includes Canadian Pacific. Still, some of their workers are in the United States; now, Canadian Pacific must align with Kansas City Southern on worker benefit and wage packages, negotiating with their respective workforces together.

That the companies will need to navigate aligning how they treat their workers points to the broader issue. While regulators approve such a consequential merger, we have yet to address the current problems that plague the industry and that will only be compounded by the merger: unequal and insufficient worker wages and protections, a too-high risk of derailments, weak classifications of how much regulation should be on trains carrying hazardous materials, and weak safety standards for all trains. It has been barely a month since the East Palestine derailment—and the government appears readier to approve more consolidation than it is to address what led to such a disaster at all.