Buttigieg testified before a Senate committee on his department’s budget. And as he’s done since the derailment controversy went national, he pointed to regulations as a solution.
“Questions arose in the wake of East Palestine from people who asked a very reasonable question looking at that horrific smoke column and fireball coming out of the vinyl chloride controlled burn,” Buttigieg said, “that if this train did not meet the legal or technical definition of a high-hazard flammable train, what would?”
After 50 train cars derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, and subsequently caught fire, vinyl chloride, phosgene, hydrogen chloride, and other gases were emitted into the air and water. The train crashed on Feb. 3 while traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, and burned throughout the weekend. Buttigieg did not publicly address the disaster for 10 days.
New Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) later released a lengthy statement demanding answers and providing constituents with resources to get help, while Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) called for Buttigieg to resign. Vance and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also sent Buttigieg a letter requesting more information on the Department of Transportation’s “oversight of the United States’ freight train system.”
They were notably joined by progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who called for “direct action” from him to address the tragedy.
While the sharpest criticisms emerged from the Right, the incident did damage Buttigieg with Democrats, argues party strategist Brad Bannon.
“He does need to rehabilitate himself,” Bannon said. “But he has at least two more years to do so.”
Most money has yet to be doled out from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed last year. Dispensing that money will give Buttigieg the opportunity to connect with Democrats across the country, Bannon argues, which will be plenty of time to put the Ohio incident behind him.
“We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015),” the transportation secretary tweeted. “But we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe.”
Several Democratic senators alluded to the derailment and the need for more regulations during Thursday’s hearing, and while Republicans on the committee complained about various budget proposals, none directly challenged Buttigieg on whether regulation would have prevented the accident.
Buttigieg enjoys an unusually high profile for a transportation secretary owing to his background. After being elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he launched a presidential campaign and won the Iowa caucus before dropping out to endorse eventual President Joe Biden. After winning the presidency, Biden named Buttigieg transportation secretary, and he’s often mentioned on a short list of names as a future Democratic presidential nominee.
The transportation secretary generated headlines in October 2021 when it was learned that he had been on paternity leave for two months and again more recently for his use of private jets and role in the Federal Aviation Administration’s massively disruptive software system outage.
He has also come under fire for what critics perceive as political statements that fail to address crucial issues, such as his 2021 claim that there is “racism physically built into some of our highways.”
In the interim between the Ohio train derailment and his first public statements about it, Buttigieg said at a conference that there were often too many white workers on construction projects in “neighborhoods of color.”
But Buttigieg’s more recent calls for increased regulation are likely to connect with voters, Bannon argues, especially after the Silicon Valley Bank collapse Democrats have also blamed on regulation rollbacks.
“Most voters think that regulations are necessary to regulate business,” Bannon, who thinks Buttigieg remains very much in the mix for 2028, said. “The Democrats are in a good position to sell that argument.”