Sen. J.D. Vance’s (R-Ohio) call for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)-style plan to help workers and businesses affected by the East Palestine train derailment is being greeted skeptically by Senate Republicans as they think about the best way to deliver aid to the community.
Vance has been among the leaders calling for increased attention and resources for East Palestine and a region that is still in the midst of a toxic waste cleanup following the Feb. 3 derailment.
But while most senators say they’re open at looking ways to help the area recover, they caution it’s too early to make that determination and question whether a PPP-type program is necessary.
“It’s something I’d be willing to look at. … I think it would be difficult. We want to see those small businesses get back up on [their feet], and I know they’re having trouble with that, but how do you quantify a train derailment disaster over some other kind of thing?” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “It’s something to consider. I’d have to see how he would enact something like that.”
Vance’s call for an aid package along the lines of the pandemic program that provided billions of dollars for small businesses came as part of an op-ed in The Washington Post where he relayed anecdotes from residents of the town who are concerned about the financial viability of staying in the area.
Financial assistance from Congress is not likely to come immediately, however, as lawmakers await investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies to be completed and cleanup to be concluded, which they hope will give a better idea of what the area needs.
“I understand where Sen. Vance is coming from. We’ve all had natural disasters. When we do, we all try to help each other. … But it needs to be thought through. A little time needs to pass. We don’t even know what the health impacts are going to be yet of train derailment, much less the economic impacts. I would look at anything that JD wants to propose,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told The Hill.
Kennedy also noted that a major question surrounds how much Norfolk Southern will be on the hook for when all is said and done.
In total, the railway has committed nearly $8 million to the area in various ways, but lawmakers indicated they are nowhere close to being finished on that end. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told reporters on Tuesday that the federal government should not have to provide assistance to the area and believes Norfolk Southern should cover more than the lion’s share of what is needed.
“Norfolk Southern’s paying for all of this. … There shouldn’t have to be federal dollars. Norfolk Southern’s paying for this. They’ve committed to that, and we’re going to hold them to it,” Brown told reporters.
Brown added that he is “open to anything” on Vance’s PPP idea and that they have discussed it.
Vance told The Hill on Tuesday that he and his staff are still figuring out the nuts and bolts of the PPP-type proposal, adding that it is “one piece” of the financial response and will be thought through over the “next couple of weeks.”
“We’re still thinking through what exactly it would look like, but the PPP program is a pretty good structural basis for it, which is effectively income replacement for people who lost their job through no fault of their own. That’s the baseline of how we think this would work,” Vance said in a brief interview, adding that questions surrounding where the funds would come from and underwater mortgages also need to be addressed.
While popular when it passed, the Paycheck Protection Program has drawn the ire of many Republicans in recent months as experts estimate that $80 billion of the $800 billion in PPP loans that were doled out to small businesses were fraudulent. Unlike that system, any proposal for those in eastern Ohio would be on a much smaller scale, though it would be unprecedented for a non-COVID-19 situation.
“I’m open to helping. I’m not sure that’s the right model,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the PPP idea. “That’s been the norm around here when there are disasters like this, the federal government steps up and tries to help, and I wouldn’t expect this to be any different.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), a longtime House Ways and Means Committee member, indicated he is open to the idea. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) told The Hill that he would discuss the possibility with Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents the area.
On the disaster front, lawmakers OK’d more than $40 billion for victims of storms and wildfires as part of the year-end omnibus spending bill.
One entity that is not aiding financially is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which said that the derailment does not qualify as a traditional disaster. The agency has, however, dispatched multiple staffers to the area.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor on Monday that lawmakers will work with Vance “to ensure the people of Ohio are appropriately informed and supported in the months to come.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.