March 31, 2023

In recent days I’ve seen every major paper write a version of the How Did This Tragic Train Derailment Become a New Culture War story. I didn’t need to ask myself whether any of them gave the actual answer, which I think most of us know. How is it that a train derailment caused by a major GOP-donating corporation, in a state run by a Republican governor, caused at least in part by regulations rolled back by Republican President Donald Trump … well, how exactly is that a story about Democrats not caring about people in ‘fly over country’? The Republican crackpot investigations complex is even now prepping to hold hearings about it.

The reality of the situation is that big corporations like Norfolk Southern spend millions in Washington for lax regulation and our railroad infrastructure is woefully aged and deficient – and not just for freight rail. Virtually every upgrade to the country’s railroad infrastructure and the quality of its rail stock pays dividends either in safety or efficiency. Republicans are simultaneously calling out corporations for not caring about ordinary Americans while carrying their anti-regulatory water on Capitol Hill. Democrats should run a freight train right through that contradiction. Only good things can come of it.

Democrats should pound on the fact at every opportunity that the Trump White House not only rolled back those regulations but Trump literally bragged about doing so on Twitter.

But that’s hardly enough. Democrats, led by the White House, should immediately bring forward expansive legislation to bring America’s railroads up to code, to not only add additional health and safety regulations but change the formulas and frameworks through which new regulations are promulgated. (They’re currently held captive by a framework of narrow cost benefit analysis which does not take into account the true externalities and consequences of man-made disasters like these.) That legislation is the answer to every Republicans’ crocodile tears about how did this happen? Why was Norfolk Southern allowed to do this? How do we prevent this from ever happening again?

You call it the Rail Safety and Corporate Accountability Act of 2023. You keep flogging it nonstop and certainly every time the East Palestine catastrophe comes up. It should be Democrats’ focus in any hearings about it. Was it terrible? Yes. Pass the act. Should the big corporations be held accountable? Definitely. Pass the Act.

But it has to come now, not in response to more caterwauling months from now.

Does this mean the law will pass? It might. Even under a Republican House. There are actually signs of some emerging bipartisan agreement on passing new legislation. But if Republicans refuse to bring such a bill or any reasonable approximation of it to a vote let them explain why they oppose it.

Few things are more important in politics than making clear why things happen or fail to happen. That includes the policies that allow them to happen and the people who keep those policies in place. There is a rearguard chorus from the left saying that Obama should have done more than the limited regulations he advanced within current law and that Biden should have done more in his first two years to restore the regs that Trump turned back. Fair enough. All the more reason to pass the Act.

For Democrats, the policy and the politics line up exactly. They should be leaning into it. Yes, Republicans react to their own policy failures with performative pearl-clutching. Elite media buys it every time. But that’s only a conversation for people already part of the reality-based-community. More importantly being right about that doesn’t make future toxic chemical derailments any less likely. President Biden’s State of the Union address shows the rhetorical mold in which to sell it.

Introduce the legislation and push it hard. Make clear to everyone what the problem is and where everybody stands and increase the chances of actually improving things. Policy and politics line up precisely.

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