Rail industry support follows Rep. Denham’s ascent in House

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, grills a witness during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, grills a witness during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26, 2014 in Washington, D.C. MCT

In two years, Rep. Jeff Denham of California has gone from a Republican backbencher to a key subcommittee chairman and in a league with higher-ranking and senior members of Congress when it comes to financial support from the railroad industry.

Denham, who barely received anything from railroads in his last two House campaigns, now ranks fourth out of the top five recipients of rail industry money in Congress. Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation Committee tops the list, followed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

After narrowly winning re-election in 2012 in his Central Valley district, Denham took over the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials in 2013.

Since then, the former state senator and almond farmer has received $80,750 in campaign contributions from the rail industry, according to federal election data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Only the agribusiness sector has given him more.

Denham’s circumstances are not uncommon. Financial support on Capitol Hill traditionally flows to lawmakers from industries or interests over which they have jurisdiction.

Shuster, for example, was lower on the rail industry’s list of lawmakers receiving campaign aid before Republicans took over the House in 2010 and he became chairman of the subcommittee Denham now leads. When Shuster subsequently rose to chairman of the full transportation committee in 2013, he vaulted to the top of the industry’s list.

On rail issues, Denham is probably best known for his outspoken criticism of California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project. But his committee also has jurisdiction over Amtrak, railroad labor and safety issues, hazardous materials transportation and pipeline safety.

Denham’s top individual contributor is BNSF Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. BNSF’s PAC and its top executives have given Denham’s campaign committee $29,000 this cycle, as of data compiled last month.

Of BNSF contributions alone, only Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, who received $31,800, topped Denham. Shuster received $28,334, while McConnell received $24,900. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, received $21,000.

The nation’s other three largest railroads, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX, have given Denham $10,000 each. Additionally, all four companies have given a combined $45,000 to Denham’s leadership PAC, which supports Republican House candidates, including nine in California.

David Gilliard, a spokesman for Denham’s campaign, said there was no connection between the contributions and the legislation he supports or opposes, or any issues that come before his subcommittee.

“Congressman Denham has always been a strong supporter of job-growing business and free enterprise,” Gilliard said, “and has received a healthy amount of support from job-creators.”

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the company backs candidates “who support transportation and the rail industry” through its Fund for Effective Government.

CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said the company contributes “to candidates on both sides of the aisle that align well with its core values and priorities” through its employee-driven Good Government Fund.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman declined to comment on the company’s political participation. Michael Trevino, a spokesman for BNSF, said he couldn’t speak for individual company employees who make contributions to candidates and elected officials. But he said the company PAC makes contributions “in an effort to help elect people who are supportive of the railroad industry and our business.”

For decades, railroads have maintained an influential, yet low-profile presence in Washington. But recent problems with freight rail congestion, delays to Amtrak and the safety of trains carrying large volumes of crude oil have kept the industry in the spotlight.

Among transportation companies, the four largest railroads were among the top 10 contributors to congressional candidates. The four have spent a combined $6 million on this year’s elections.

That puts them in the company of heavyweights such as United Parcel Service, FedEx and Ford Motor Co. It also puts them ahead of General Motors and the three largest domestic airlines: United Continental, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

The industry’s contributions tilt more toward Republicans, who received nearly two thirds of the industry’s overall spending, according to federal campaign data. As recently as 1994, the industry divided its contributions more evenly.

It also favors incumbents, especially those in leadership. The industry’s top 10 recipients include Denham, Shuster, McConnell, Cornyn and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio.

Denham’s PAC has spent $40,000 in nine California House races, including the most competitive ones. It gave former Rep. Doug Ose $10,000 in his bid to unseat first-term Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat. It gave former California state Sen. Tony Strickland $10,000 for his campaign to succeed retiring Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

California GOP incumbents getting help from Denham’s PAC include Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. David Valadao, who is from the Central Valley.

Denham’s PAC also gave $5,000 to former Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. The onetime House Majority Leader lost in a June Republican primary upset to a tea party challenger.