Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is increasingly in the eye of the GOP storm in the aftermath of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled toxic chemicals.
The disaster, which came just a month after a series of embarrassing air travel issues that snarled plans for millions of Americans, is prompting renewed scrutiny of his tenure atop the department.
But Democrats charge those aren’t the only reasons Buttigieg has become the target of such ire.
“Before, if you got your flight delayed, you weren't like ‘oh that damn Elaine Chao,’” one Democratic operative said, referring to the Transportation secretary under former President Trump. “That's the downside that comes with being such a good public figure.”
Republicans, for their part, point to Buttigieg’s role as one of Biden’s top surrogates and his potential aspirations for higher office as central to their frustrations. They say he’s not paying enough attention to his current job when there are plenty of high-level issues on his plate.
And as an example, they blasted him this month for taking 10 days to make a statement about the crash in Ohio, which occurred Feb. 3, and are turning up the heat on Buttigieg and his department over what caused the derailment and the agency’s response.
“I understand that the secretary is politically ambitious, and he’d like to move to government housing in Washington right up the street, but he does have a job to do,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters. “Maybe instead of focusing on gun control and denouncing freeways as racist, he should focus on addressing the enormous challenges we have on our railways, with multiple derailments where the secretary has been AWOL.”
Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Buttigieg on Wednesday raising questions about the department’s oversight of the U.S. rail system.
And Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) floated impeaching Buttigieg over how he has handled the derailment.
"I hope he does resign, and if he doesn't, there's a long list of impeachment criteria,” Davidson told conservative outlet Real America’s Voice Thursday. “I never would have thought we'd see a point where we need to impeach a Secretary of Transportation, but daggon, how many failures have to happen on his watch before we call it?”
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has defended its overall response as it assists the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation into the crash and the Environmental Protection Agency's handling of the fallout from the toxic chemicals that have ravaged the eastern Ohio town.
In a statement, the department said its staff “were on the ground hours after the derailment” in support of NTSB’s probe.
“It’s no surprise to see some playing politics with every crisis, even something as serious as the impacts of a global pandemic on our transportation systems or a train derailment,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson added that Buttigieg and the department is continuing to “focus on getting results” on a number of topics, including requirements for airlines to cover hotel and food expenses for stranded travelers and overseeing the implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure package.
However, the issues with Buttigieg run deeper for Republicans. In addition to his political aspirations, multiple senators argued that his priorities at the department are out of place and that his level of outreach with committee members is far off from those of other cabinet members.
“The thing they want more than anything else is competence, particularly in the midst of crisis. My sense is that he, like many others in the administration, are not the types of, sort of, hands on managers that you need at a time like that,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is also a member on Commerce Committee. “I think part of it too is just the efforts he makes. … Some members of the cabinet, particularly on the relevant committees, the committees of jurisdiction, do a really good job of outreach and I don’t get that from him.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another Commerce member, told The Hill that Buttigieg’s “philosophical push for everything to be climate and politically correct” is at the heart of the issues for GOP members.
“We have practical matters we need to do like permitting and building new roads and having new constructions and he pretty much puts his foot down on a lot of that stuff,” Capito said. “He’s just not leading and I think that’s the frustration.”
The Transportation Department disputed criticisms from the two lawmakers, noting that Buttigieg has had more than 100 interactions with GOP members of Congress since taking on the role.
The department added that it is “committed to building more resilient infrastructure,” including roads, bridges and evacuation routes “that can withstand extreme weather and climate events,” pointing to a program unveiled last year alongside Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) that would “help states and communities better prepare for and respond to extreme weather events.”
Buttigieg, 41, has been one of the most visible administration officials over the past two years. After a surprisingly strong but ultimately failed presidential bid, he was a vocal and often-seen proponent of Build Back Better and crisscrossed the country to tout the White House’s bipartisan infrastructure law.
He also drew public condemnation last year from right-wing pundits — though not from lawmakers — for taking paternity leave to care for the newborn twins he welcomed with his husband.
Among cabinet members, Buttigieg is one of the precious few who is considered a potential White House candidate in the coming years. Democrats far and away believe that is the main genesis for the attacks from Republicans and argue that he is an invaluable member of the administration.
The intense criticism led the White House to weigh in on Thursday. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden has “absolute confidence” in the secretary who has turned out to be one of the White House’s most trusted voices in defense of administration policy.
A number of Commerce Committee Democrats have also dismissed attacks against him. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the panel’s chairwoman, said that the criticisms are intense because some consider him “the future of our party.” Others pointed to his key voice in the administration.
“He’s smart and he knows the English language very well, so he represents himself very well under pressure. … He’s pretty damn good, I’m always impressed,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The Hill. “The issues with the flights and all that stuff — he’s secretary of Transportation. He’s going to get some shit, that’s the way it is.”
Buttigieg’s political stature coupled with the fact that the areas he oversees — infrastructure and air travel, for example — affect Americans daily creates a perfect storm for attacks by the GOP.
The derailment in Ohio has also led to some strange political bedfellows as Republicans are not the only ones criticizing the former South Bend, Ind., mayor.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee joined the chorus on Wednesday, hitting him for not reinstituting Obama-era safety regulations that were nixed during Trump’s presidency, saying that he has “done nothing in two years to reinstate them.”
Some, however, have held off. When asked if Buttigieg shared any of the blame for the crash in East Palestine, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters, “Was he driving the train?”