Sidetracked: Norfolk Southern Cuts Big Checks as Rail Safety Bill Idles
Plus: America’s second abandonment of Afghans
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, The Bulwark’s twice-weekly newsletter on Congress, campaigns, and how Washington works. Before we dive in, I want to let you know that if you want, you can drop me a line on Twitter, Threads, or (for Bulwark+ members) in the comments for this newsletter. I’d especially like to hear what you think isn’t getting enough coverage in political media—or even the stories you think are getting too much play.
Today’s newsletter takes a look at a corporate cash dump from the Norfolk Southern Corporation to key members of Congress in June, right around the time it started to become apparent that bipartisan railway safety legislation was at risk of failing. All the details on that and more, below.
Get Press Pass every Tuesday and Thursday
Remember the freight-train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio? Back in February, when it dominated the news, there was lots of talk about the need for government action on rail safety. Six months later, where do things stand?
You might have read in July that the Senate’s rail-safety bill was on the ropes after months of bipartisan cooperation. The bill’s fortunes started shifting around the same time that the Norfolk Southern Corporation—the company that owns Norfolk Southern Railway, which in turn owns and operates trains and railroads across the eastern United States, including those involved in the Ohio derailment—was cutting big checks to PACs and members of Congress whose positions made them critical to the bill’s fate.
In June, the Norfolk Southern Good Government Fund PAC bundled big donations to lawmakers, their leadership PACs, and the national campaign committees for candidates across the board. They even made a large donation to one lawmaker’s scholarship fund.
The Good Government Fund is distinct from Norfolk Southern’s primary corporate donations. Federal law prohibits companies from making direct donations to federal candidates, so while the company supports state-level candidates and related causes, the Good Government Fund exists as a licit channel for the company’s donations to national candidates. It is licit because it relies on voluntary donations from “employees and shareholders [who desire] to pool their political contributions to provide financial support to candidates and office holders who understand the legislative and regulatory issues important to Norfolk Southern.”
The Good Government Fund’s June contributions include:
Country Roads PAC (Sen. Joe Manchin’s D-W.V. leadership PAC): $5,000
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.): $5,000
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): $3,500
Steer PAC (Sen. Cynthia Lummis’s R-Wyo. leadership PAC): $5,000
Wild and Wonderful PAC (Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s R-W.V. leadership PAC): $5,000
Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.): $1,000
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.): $2,000
Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.): $5,000
BRIDGE PAC (Rep. James Clyburn’s D-S.C. leadership PAC): $5,000
The James Clyburn Foundation (Rep. Clyburn’s scholarship fund): $10,000
New Democrat Coalition Action Fund (a group that supports centrist House Democrats): $5,000
Blue Dog PAC (another group that backs centrist House Democrats): $5,000
National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC): $15,000
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC): $15,000
National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC): $15,000
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC): $15,000
It shouldn’t surprise you that most of the senators listed above sit on committees with work relevant to Norfolk Southern’s interests, including the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (Wicker, Moore Capito, Blackburn, and Lummis) and the Appropriations Committee (Hoeven and Manchin). For their part, beneficiaries in the House hold positions on key committees like Transportation and Infrastructure (Bost) and the Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation (Cline).
These contributions from Norfolk Southern to members of Congress represent just a fragment of the overall picture. As a general rule, railway companies are invested in fewer regulations, which drive up their costs; using donations to curry favor with elected officials and members of the current presidential administration is a routine matter for them, as it is for companies in every industry.
Republican super PACs have also reaped rewards from companies in other industries that share with Norfolk Southern an interest in fewer rail safety regulations being approved. A recent report from the Lever details one such donation from a petrochemical company involved in the February derailment:
The company that manufactured the toxic chemicals that were released and incinerated in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment this winter gave $2 million to the primary Senate GOP super PAC as bipartisan rail safety legislation stalled in Congress.
The manufacturer, Occidental Petroleum, has been lobbying on rail and tank car safety, and its lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council — which also donated $250,000 to the main House GOP super PAC — had pushed for changes weakening the bill in committee.
The question always arises in situations like this: Were these donations made because the lawmakers who benefited from them are politically aligned with the companies that made them, or have the lawmakers been incentivized by these donations to toe a certain line? Of course, it’s also possible that some of these members of Congress are clueless about who’s making these kinds of donations to their campaigns. But however you slice it, it doesn’t look ethical or honest to a normal person.
As Press Pass noted earlier this year, both the Donald Trump and Barack Obama administrations condoned and enabled worsening corporate behavior on the rails, which may have contributed to a recent uptick in the rate of train derailments even as the number of miles being traveled by rail has declined.
America’s Second Abandonment of Afghans
Speaking of Congress failing to get their job done, the Afghan Adjustment Act has received very little movement and its potential failure could risk abandoning the Afghans in the United States who aided the U.S. mission over the two-decade war.
Bulwark contributor Linda Chavez offers a helpful explanation of what’s going on:
The Afghan Adjustment Act would give permanent residence to Afghans who have been paroled into the United States. It’s not a heavy lift. Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the latest, bipartisan legislation in July with four other Democrats and five Republican cosponsors; Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks introduced a similar measure in the House with two dozen cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. The Klobuchar bill includes tough vetting measures to ensure that deserving Afghans receive protection while those who may pose a security threat are weeded out.
Yet neither the Senate nor House has been able to move, largely because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley, who blocked a similar bill in committee last year, and Sen. Tom Cotton, who has submitted a competing bill this year. Cotton wants to tie Afghan readjustment to severely restricting the president’s powers to grant future humanitarian parole to others fleeing wars or political oppression.
Congress could have included Afghan adjustment in the National Defense Authorization Act, different versions of which passed the Senate and House in July, but chose not to. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Afghans living in the United States face a precarious future as their two-year parole status expires. President Biden has authorized renewal of temporary parole on a case-by-case basis, but many Afghans may be confused about whether or how they need to apply for an extension.