Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing his hardest test in the Biden administration yet with the response to the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment.  

Buttigieg has already had a tough 2023 dealing with airline meltdowns and problems with the Federal Aviation Administration.  

Now he’s the political figure under the most intense criticism over the train derailment.  

Republicans have ripped Buttigieg for not being on the scene earlier. More generally, the episode has raised troubling questions about rail safety and the response by the government to dangers posed by the release of vinyl chloride to air and water quality.  

Buttigieg sought to go on offense last week, criticizing former President Trump and the GOP over opposition to safety regulations while defending the administration’s response.  

“Ever since I came into this job, I have seen the power that multibillion dollar railroad companies wield, and they fight safety regulations tooth and nail,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday. 

“That’s got to change. The future cannot be like the past.”  

But forging a new future will mean slipping the rails laid by the Transportation Department’s traditional role, say progressive critics, who argue it has historically been too deferential to big transportation companies.  

Some of Buttigieg’s new proposals have won praise from rail union advocates — a key Biden constituency that has been pressing the railroads on safety and labor issues for years. 

“It’s a really good start, although there’s more that needs to be done,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO union, told The Hill. 

Regan noted that Buttigieg has announced his support for a new rule — long fought by the rail industry — that would require at least two copilots on every train. The airline industry is lobbying for its own rule change which would allow them to fly planes with just one pilot. 

He also praised Buttigieg’s insistence that higher electronic monitoring standards must not become an excuse for cutting jobs or the time allotted to track inspections. 

“When it comes to things like brake inspections and track inspections, [the major rail carriers] always use technology as a justification for why they can eliminate human track inspections,” Regan said. “So it was good to get that signal from the secretary.” 

But for some progressive groups, the tough talk in Buttigieg’s letter to the rail companies in some ways concealed its very weakness.

Dylan Gyauch-Lewis of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group focused on executive branch reform, said that the secretary was asking rail carriers to voluntarily solve the problems he had identified — without mentioning any specific consequences if they failed to. 

“He has a habit — and he does this time and time again — where his inclination is to first ask very nicely and hope that something changes,” Gyauch-Lewis said.  

Gyauch-Lewis argued that while Buttigieg’s actions are restricted by what Congress will allow, his office still holds great power.  

“One thing he could do as a minimum first step is investigate how safety regulations impact rail workers on the job,” he said — something Buttigieg didn’t include on his list of proposals. Also, Gyauch-Lewis said, while Buttigieg is pushing Congress to raise fines, “he hasn’t been levying fines much.” 

The White House has defended Buttigieg, a frequent target of both the right and left.  

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre last week called the attacks on Buttigieg “pure politics.”  

“There’s been a lot of bad faith attacks on Secretary Buttigieg,” she added, contrasting attacks on Buttigieg to the treatment of Trump Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “When there was these types of chemical spills, nobody was calling for her to be fired.” 

For many progressives and conservatives alike, however, Buttigieg’s current embrace of rail reform is undermined by what they see as lenient treatment of airlines like Southwest. That company spent billions on stock buybacks in the years leading up to its holiday cancellation crisis.  

Critics say the secretary allowed airlines to walk away with billions in consumer refunds for flights it knowingly overbooked. The alliance of state attorneys general was so frustrated that in summer 2020 they pleaded with Congress to replace the Department of Transportation as the main airline regulator. 

After repeated meetings with airline heads, Buttigieg did take action. In November 2022, the department announced $7.25 million in fines to six airlines, who collectively paid back $600 million. But that quantity was just a small percentage of what the airlines owed, including none of the principal U.S. carriers.  

“The flying public is stuck with a self-regulating regulating and flailing agency stuck in the 20th century,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told Congress earlier this month, speaking of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is under Buttigieg’s authority. 

The expectation that the department won’t get tougher is also a problem, said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door project. 

“If you think that the Department of Transportation is a stringent enforcer, unfair and deceptive practices laws, you behave differently than if you think they’re feckless,” he said. 

Some Biden agency heads have taken on a more confrontational role: like Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, who has pushed aggressive antitrust action against Big Tech companies, or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s director Rohit Chopra, who has taken a strict line against bank and credit card late fees. 

The Transportation Department has taken some steps that suggest a new direction, the AFL-CIO’s transportation director Regan said. In January, Amit Bose, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, wrote the nation’s seven largest railways demanding that they be prepared to answer whether their personnel policy changes had led to decreased safety. 

In his confrontation with the railways, Buttigieg could accomplish much by simply “doing the type of thing he’s doing — but a more full-throated version where he doesn’t give the industry months to just diddle around,” Gyauch-Lewis said. 

Buttigieg must move fast too, he argued: any new administrative rules will have to go through legal rule, and if not filed soon risk being still up in the air if a Republican administration takes office. 

But regulatory reform will be far harder now than it would have been had Buttigieg played a more proactive role in East Palestine, former Republican National Committee communications director Douglas Heye told The Hill.  

Buttigieg’s absence from East Palestine during the 20 days after the crash may have been typical behavior for a Transportation secretary following a derailment — but it created a situation in which Republicans could tie his absence to a broader narrative around the town’s abandonment. 

That failure in the theatrical aspect of his job — the duty to be seen on the scene, in a hardhat, directing resources — now hampers Buttigieg as he tries to take on the substantive parts, Heye said. 

“Regulation is sort of part of the conversation — but if they had gotten the politics right that would be the only part of the conversation,” he said. “Because they got the politics wrong initially, people who might have listened are tuning them out.”