Political action committees (PACs) that are related to the rail industry have donated $3.7 million during the 2020 election cycle to Republican and Democratic congressional candidates.
Of that total, 44%, or $1.6 million, was for Democratic candidates, while 56%, or $2.1 million, was for Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Center for Responsive Politics defines PACs as groups that are formed “for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Most PACs represent business, labor or ideological interests.”
Will Sehestedt, FreightWaves’ vice president of association and university development, said, “The purpose of trade association or corporate PACs giving to a member of Congress is to curry favor and to gain access to fundraising events where lobbyists, company leadership and association member leadership can build relationships with decision-makers.”
Sehestedt previously worked for the Transportation Intermediaries Association, where he was involved in PAC fundraising.
The PACs of four U.S. Class I railroads were the biggest donors, giving more than $500,000 in campaign contributions in 2020.
Some of the contributions from the freight rail industry included contributions to congressional representatives who might sometimes be perceived as being at odds with the industry. Corporate and trade PACs do this so that they can have a working relationship with the representatives.
For instance, the PACs for Norfolk Southern, CSX and the Association of American Railroads have contributed to the campaign for Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. DeFazio, who has questioned precision scheduled railroading in past hearings, also chairs the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Some railroad PACs have also supported Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has called for remedies for blocked highway-grade crossings and has sought to improve Amtrak’s service metrics.
Meanwhile, campaign contributions from rail PACs represent 15% of the $24 million given by PACs representing the overall transportation sector. In comparison, contributions from air transportation PACs represented 38% of overall giving from the transportation sector.
Rail union PACs gave mostly to Democrats
In comparison to the trade and corporate PACs for rail, campaign contributions from the rail unions leaned Democrat.
The PAC for the SMART-Transportation Division has given $916,850, with 85% going to Democrats and 15% going to Republicans.
But of the eight contributions that totaled $10,000, the highest amount given by the PAC, four went to Republicans: Congressmen Donald John Bacon of Nebraska, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Steve Stivers of Ohio and Don Young of Alaska. Bacon, Smith and Stivers have co-sponsored legislation by Young that requires freight trains to have at least two crew members on board.
The PAC for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen gave $423,100, of which 97% went to Democrats and 3% went to Republicans. And the PAC for the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen has contributed $108,250, with 91% going toward Democrats and 9% going toward Republicans.
The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO gave $152,500, of which 82% went to Democrats and 18% went to Republicans.
Political ramifications of the 2020 election
With the presidential election and the possibility to switch the majority party in Congress at play, the outcome of the elections could influence transportation funding and policy over the next several years. How the U.S. crafts trade policy with China, the degree to which Congress pushes “green” initiatives and the issue of corporate taxes are just some of the issues potentially on the horizon.
A change in political control in Congress and the White House could “heighten some areas of concern to the railroads: A reversal of the Trump corporate tax cuts would result in major negative swings to the railroads’ free cash flow,” said FreightWaves rail and intermodal expert Mike Baudendistel.
The push toward adding two more members to the Surface Transportation Board could also come into play post-elections.