Foes seek to derail Vance bill

David Skolnick

During his testimony in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about the East Palestine rail disaster, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance touted his bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 and vowed to fight for it even though it faces opposition from fellow Republicans.

It didn’t take long for a group of Republican organizations to come out strongly against the proposal.

In an open letter to Congress intended to influence Republican members, leaders of 18 conservative groups urged the bill be rejected.

The letter reads: “The legislation offers a slew of significant new regulations that would do little to improve safety while creating gross inefficiencies for thousands of businesses. The provisions within the bill are much like the list of recommendations offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation and would grant this struggling agency unimaginable authority.”

The letter also states: “Lawmakers would be better served focusing on recovery for the people of East Palestine, including by ensuring railroad Norfolk Southern makes good on their commitments while also waiting for more details from the National Transportation Safety Board to inform any potential future policies.”

Among those who signed the letter are leaders of FreedomWorks, the National Taxpayers Union, the Conservative Action Project (with former Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, its chairman signing it), the Center for a Free Economy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Americans for Limited Government, 60 Plus Association and Americans for a Strong Economy.

The letter ends with: “Rather than advance this misguided bill, Congress should instead focus on the facts to best protect businesses, consumers and taxpayers.”

Vance, a Cincinnati Republican, knew there would be pushback to his bipartisan proposal.

In his Senate committee testimony, he said: “I’m a Republican. I’m a pretty conservative Republican, and I worry that there has been a movement in my party and in my movement in response to the legislation that I proposed that would not hold Norfolk Southern or the rail industry accountable.”

Vance said his proposal — which includes U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat, as a lead co-sponsor — is not a return to “the days of rate setting” that ended more than 40 years ago.

“But that doesn’t mean we cannot have reasonable public safety enhancements in response to what happened in East Palestine,” he said.

Vance said there is “a particular slice of people who seem to think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry is somehow a violation of the free market.” He pointed out that the rail industry “enjoys special subsidies” and “special legal carve outs that almost no industry enjoys.”

The bill wants to enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, like the one that derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, as well as require railroads to create disaster plans and tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states. It also establishes requirements for wayside defect detectors, creates a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews and increases fines for wrongdoing by rail carriers.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw didn’t commit to supporting the bill in his Senate testimony, but said there were provisions he could back including tighter railroad car standards and improved trackside detectors.

The Republican organizations that oppose the legislation carry a lot of weight among GOP legislators, some who oppose the bill. Republicans control the House of Representatives and could choose to kill the proposal even if the Senate passes it.

In his testimony, Vance said Republicans are at a crossroads with this bill.

Directing his statement toward other Republicans, Vance said: “We are faced with a choice, with this legislation and how we respond to this crisis. Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and to the Congress in the first place?”

Vance concluded by saying, “I believe that we are the party of working people, but it’s time to be the party of working people. We have a choice: Are we for big business and big government or are we for the people of East Palestine? It’s a time for choosing. Let’s make the right one.”



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