Amtrak: Twisting tragedy before the facts are in

“Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” That cynical slogan of the Obama administration has spread to members of Congress. Well before there were any answers regarding the cause of the tragic Amtrak derailment that claimed eight lives and injured scores more, certain members of Congress jumped to capitalize on the accident to advance their political agenda.

Rep. Bill DeFazio, D-Ore., immediately decried his Republican colleagues, charging them with “short-sighted budget cutting” and chiding that they need to be “cognizant of the real world out there, of what happened last night, of what the capital needs of Amtrak are….” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., followed suit. Decrying Republicans’ fiscal policies, he declared that, when it came to Congressional funding of Amtrak and the safety of its riders, “last night, we failed them. We failed to invest in their safety.”

The partisan finger-pointing came well before the investigation into the accident could produce any answers—including the revelation that the train went into a sharp curve at more than twice the designated speed limit. In addition, the Republican funding bill they were disparaging does not cut allocations to safety programs for the National Transportation Safety Board or the Federal Railroad Administration. Yet when federal funding is at stake, ideology happily tramples facts in its race to exploit human tragedy.

Indeed, we’ve seen this story before.  Big Spenders in Congress immediately seized on two prominent bridge collapses—the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota (2007) and the I-5 Skagit Bridge in Washington State (2013)—as conclusive proof that federal transportation spending was inadequate. But these prognostications were wrong on both accounts: the Minnesota bridge had a construction defect that no amount of maintenance could have detected or repaired, and the Washington bridge collapse was caused by an oversized truck that improperly tried to cross the bridge. Policy considerations and funding levels had nothing to do with either incident.

This week’s Amtrak accident prompted another embarrassing display of the facts-be-damned attitude far too many politicians have when it comes to “solving” problems.

Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leapt to advocate spending $1 trillion on transportation infrastructure after a deadly bridge collapse in Cincinnati. The  collapse, he said, was but the “latest example” of a lack of federal investment. Once again, it turned out the accident had nothing to do with maintenance or funding. It resulted from a construction work mishap.

This week’s Amtrak accident prompted another embarrassing display of the facts-be-damned attitude far too many politicians have when it comes to “solving” problems. Rather than wait for investigators to figure out what went wrong, they quickly offered up their one-and-only solution—more federal spending—while damning more prudent lawmakers for not joining them in leaping to their premature conclusion.

Less than a day later, the cause of this tragedy appears to be operator error—something than no amount of infrastructure investment can fix. Of course, the final verdict is still out. But that is of no matter to members of Congress eager to use tragedy as a rationale for throwing even more taxpayer money at their pet programs.

Paul Winfree is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, where Michael Sargent is a researcher.