Discover more from Letters from an American
February 25, 2023
Yesterday, the chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, James Comer (R-KY), the chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, Pete Sessions (R-TX), the chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs, Glenn Grothman (R-WI), and the chair of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and Government Innovation, Nancy Mace (R-SC), along with seventeen other extremist Republican members of Congress, sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
The letter complained that the federal government had not responded effectively to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It referred to a preliminary report by the “D[epartment] O[f] T[ransportation]’s National Transportation Safety Board” and demanded Buttigieg provide “[a]ll documents and communications regarding NTSB’s progress on the cause of the derailment.”
The NTSB is not part of the Department of Transportation.
The NTSB is part of the government, but it is an independent agency, charged with investigating civil transportation accidents. It is also in charge of investigating the release of hazardous materials during transportation. Congress deliberately set it apart from the Department of Transportation to guarantee unbiased investigations.
A 150-car Norfolk Southern train was traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania on Friday, February 3, when 38 cars derailed at about 8:54 p.m. Those cars caught fire, and 12 cars that had not derailed also caught fire. The NTSB responded immediately and, the following afternoon, held a press conference explaining that it was collecting perishable evidence to determine what caused the accident and to make appropriate recommendations for safety upgrades if such recommendations were warranted.
Nine NTSB investigators and four engineers in labs have been involved in the accident review. They have reviewed footage of the derailment, interviewed train staff, and examined the train event recorder, a device similar to a black box on an airplane.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal agency in charge of responding to the release of hazardous substances and leading cleanup efforts. Its personnel were at the site by 2:00 on Saturday morning, about five hours after the derailment. It has had six staff and 16 contractors on the ground since the crash.
The Department of Transportation has two agencies that are appropriate to deploy for this kind of an accident. The Federal Railroad Administration enforces safety regulations for railways, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration enforces safety regulations for hazardous materials. Those agencies have deployed ten staff to help NTSB investigate. They will figure out if Norfolk Southern ignored any regulations.
This letter is not about the derailment itself, or the dangers, or the cleanup, or even the history of deregulation.
It is about the careful way generations of Americans have tried to create a government that could support progress while also guaranteeing oversight, and it is about the lawmakers who wrote the letter to Secretary Buttigieg.
Either 21 Republican lawmakers charged with oversight of our government don’t know how the government works and didn’t care to find out, or they are deliberately misleading their loyalists.
We are becoming accustomed to certain Republican lawmakers saying ridiculous things. Just two days ago, in a now-deleted tweet, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) claimed that “6 billion” people have illegally crossed the border since President Biden took office. (There are slightly fewer than 8 billion people on earth.)
But the letter these representatives wrote shows such a profound disinterest in how our government works that it suggests these representatives have no real interest in the job they were sent to Washington to do, and instead are weaponizing the government to mislead their followers into believing things that are not true.
Buttiegieg responded: “I am alarmed to learn that the Chair of the House Oversight Committee thinks that the NTSB is part of our Department. NTSB is independent (and with good reason). Still, of course, we will fully review this and respond appropriately.”