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The Urge to Federalize — and Politicize — Every Local Disaster

A tale of two trains: When something bad happens, local and state officials increasingly are shouldered aside. The people and the pundits now expect all solutions to come from Washington.

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio.
Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023. There’s a growing trend to make big local problems into bigger national crises. (Dustin Franz/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Early in the battle over who was responsible for dealing with the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Fox’s Tucker Carlson took on U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He’s “completely incompetent,” Carlson said on the air. “Completely.” He went on, “There's never been a cabinet secretary this flamboyantly incompetent and this so obviously uncaring almost to the point of evil, if we're being honest about it.”

In Carlson’s eyes, the big problem was that Buttigieg didn’t show up immediately in East Palestine, a city Donald Trump easily won in 2020. And Carlson contended that Buttigieg was focused instead on launching new projects in Philadelphia and Detroit, which voted Democratic. He even criticized the transportation secretary for not paying enough attention to the toxic waste unleashed by the derailment, even though that’s the Environmental Protection Agency’s job.

Beyond the partisan jockeying, there’s a deeper message here: The most local of issues are increasingly taking an instant escalator to the top of the agenda in Washington. There just isn’t an important issue — whether it’s education, public safety or just about anything else — that’s local any longer.

After all, this was a crisis that started from an overheated wheel bearing on a train operated by a private company, Norfolk Southern, which ironically experienced another derailment, this time in Alabama, just as the company’s president was preparing to testify on Capitol Hill about the East Palestine incident. Local emergency crews were quickly on the scene in East Palestine, and Ohio’s EPA arrived soon thereafter to manage the toxic chemical spill. But despite the local response, the issue bolted immediately to national news in Washington.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2012, a Conrail freight train derailed in Paulsboro, N.J., a small town not far from Philadelphia and about the same size as East Palestine. That derailment released the same chemical, vinyl chloride. Instead of leaking into the ground, four cars containing vinyl chloride tumbled into a creek. Local emergency officials evacuated more than 500 residents. But the two accidents are remarkably similar in many ways.

The response in Paulsboro was quick, involving the local fire department, New Jersey’s EPA and its Office of Emergency Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Conrail. Nevertheless, criticism of the response was quick and fierce. As was the case in East Palestine, local residents claimed they were being neglected — but this time by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who was preoccupied with the response to Superstorm Sandy, which had hit the state a month earlier. He sent his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, instead.

Mildred Yake, a Paulsboro resident, complained, “He shoulda came down here and seen how it affected everybody.” She continued, “Paulsboro doesn’t matter to nobody.” State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who represented the town at the time, contended that “the communication has been as poorly handled as possible. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think they just mismanaged it.” Neighbors got mixed signals on what to do, he said. “That doesn’t give the public any confidence.”

Local Problems, National Crises

It’s a tale of two trains, each carrying the same chemical, each of which derailed in a small town, each of which prompted criticism about government’s response. The biggest difference: The instant escalation of the East Palestine derailment to the lead story in national news and the complaints that there wasn’t a quick enough, personal enough response from top Washington officials, including both Buttigieg and President Biden.

What accounts for this difference? One simple explanation is politics. Carlson certainly didn’t want to miss the chance to throw a hard fastball to brush back Buttigieg, ranked No. 2 on the Washington Post’s list of the top Democratic presidential candidates for 2024. Buttigieg backed away, dusted himself off and admitted that he “could have spoken out sooner.” The political heat he got for waiting to visit, he said apologetically, was “a lesson learned for me.”

Hyperpolarization makes every news story a chance to score points. As that’s gotten worse, so too has the instinct to push problems up to the national media.

But there’s an ever bigger difference between these two tales. There’s a growing trend to make big local problems into bigger national crises, and to ask Washington to solve problems that previously would mostly have been handled locally.

In Paulsboro, local police and the fire department were first on the scene, and fire officials consulted with the U.S. EPA about how to handle the spill. The Coast Guard soon arrived. But local and state officials shouldered most of the work.

Residents were upset, of course, and worried about what they ought to do and who was going to take care of them. But when residents complained of burning eyes, irritated throats and breathing problems, no one in Paulsboro demanded that the U.S. secretary of transportation or the president come to the scene. The state EPA dealt with most of the post-accident cleanup.

In East Palestine, the U.S. EPA came in quickly. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s appearances got squeezed out when Buttigieg finally arrived. (DeWine did ask for, and got, a four-month extension, until July, to apply for disaster aid, which was to come from FEMA.)

Federalism’s Ripped Fabric

The big story is that all the acronyms — EPA, FEMA, FRA, NTSB, DOT — became federal, and quickly. (That’s the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation.) So did the logos on most of the windbreakers worn by the response teams.

And when East Palestine residents vented their anger at government officials reporting to them about tests for dangerous chemicals a month later, they focused their ire on U.S. EPA officials. “Don’t lie to us!” they shouted at Debra Shore, a regional EPA administrator, amid a chorus of boos.

In Washington hearings, members of Congress bored in on Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, as they wondered why federal officials had not tightened their oversight of the railroad and proposed laws to prevent future such derailments. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and Republican Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia joined in a pledge “to deliver accountability to the communities and folks who have been impacted.” Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Sherrod Brown, together pushed new safety regulations.

All of this is much more than the Biden administration or its opponents on Fox trying to score political points. There’s been an important change in the policy dynamics, with any issue of any importance quickly riding the up staircase to Washington.

It’s not a product of either big-government Democrats or anti-regulation Republicans. Rather, it’s a rip in the fabric of federalism, where the old argument for pushing responsibility to state and local governments is much more about rhetoric and much less about practice.

The overarching message, from both people and pundits: We want solutions. We want them now. And we want them from Washington.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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