Amtrak crash reignites Capitol Hill debate over infrastructure spending, burden of sequester

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House Speaker John Boehner was having none of it Thursday morning.

Ginger Gibson of the International Business Times attempted to question the Ohio Republican at a press conference about the Amtrak accident and funding. We’ll never know exactly what Gibson wanted to ask. The typically-courtly speaker cut off Gibson just words into her interrogatory.

“That’s a stupid question,” said Boehner, interrupting Gibson in mid-sentence. Democrats “started this yesterday. It’s about funding. It’s all about funding. Well obviously it’s not about funding. The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there. No money's been cut from rail safety.”

Democrats plunged headlong into a narrative about infrastructure funding in light of Amtrak’s deadly crash in Philadelphia this week. Republicans were hasty to reject that premise, citing speed as the probable culprit.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here,” muttered Boehner.

He then ended the press conference and left the room.

Insufficient funding may not be behind the Amtrak accident. There may be some efforts to paint Republicans into a corner on the issue. But whether Boehner likes it or not, the Amtrak crash is triggering a debate in Washington about funding for infrastructure, transportation, highways and mass transit.

There are a couple triggers for this renewed conversation. The first factor is the woeful state of U.S. infrastructure. Even Boehner has expressed concern about the nation’s ability to adequately move goods and provide services -- and the negative impact posed to the U.S. economy.

Secondly, Congress is on the precipice of a time-sensitive debate about re-upping the nation’s Highway Trust Fund.

An 18.4-cent-a-gallon tax levied on gasoline pays for work on roads and bridges around the country.

The problem is that Congress never indexed the gas tax for inflation.

The tax now stands at the same level as it did in 1993. Gas tax receipts pull in just $34 billion a year. Transportation and highway programs demand about $50 billion annually. So Congress sometimes approves fiscal putty to make up the difference. A failure to extend the Highway Trust Fund could bring thousands of summer-time construction projects to a halt and idle hundreds of thousands of workers. Such a scenario would bludgeon the U.S. economy.

Third, there’s the specter of sequestration – the set of mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts that Congress imposed on itself several years ago.

The sequester was  a penalty for Congress failing to forge an accord to slash $1.2 trillion in spending. As a result, the arbitrary spending reductions kicked in. Each year, those spending curbs grow more onerous, which means talk of kicking sequestration to the ditch intensifies on Capitol Hill.

This trifecta poses an opportunity.

Some in Congress think Amtrak deserves more funding. But many of those lawmakers also demand additional money for other transportation programs. Moreover, the Highway Trust Fund issue comes ripe. Finally, there is a craving in Democratic and Republican circles to eliminate the sequester.

Many conservatives embrace sequestration as the only chunk of real spending cuts they’ve extracted over the past several years. But some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue sequestration makes it just too challenging for Congress to allocate appropriate funds for government business -- let alone pass appropriations bills to avoid a government shutdown.

So there was a lot of chatter this week -- “bait” as Boehner might put it -- about funding for Amtrak. For Amtrak advocates, it was only fortuitous that the House Appropriations Committee scheduled its annual markup session of the transportation and housing spending bill for the morning after the crash.

“Last night’s deadly crash in Philadelphia puts in stark focus potential implications of slashing its funding drastically,” said New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Amtrak has long been a favorite whipping boy of Congress -- especially for conservatives who represent districts and states not served by the rail line.

In the mid-1990s, Republicans seized control of Congress. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, set out to eliminate Amtrak one way or another. The newly-minted Republican majority often proclaimed it would roll back programs “from A to Z.”

Amtrak frequently served as the “A” in those declarations. Gingrich wanted to privatize Amtrak. Then-House Budget Committee Chairman and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Republican, planned to “zero it out.”

But all politics is local.

At a 1995 Senate hearing on Amtrak, then-Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, said that Amtrak’s east-west Empire Builder line provided the only mass-transit system in his entire state. Then-Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., chaired the railroad subcommittee. A congresswoman from New York City whose constituents depend on Amtrak, Molinari lobbied Kasich that health and labor benefits due to workers would make it more expensive to torpedo Amtrak than just keeping it.

Then-Rep. Bob Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican and a top Gingrich lieutenant, frequently criticized bloated federal spending. But when Amtrak announced plans to strip Lancaster, Pa., in his district of train service, Walker exploded.

“What Amtrak has done is outrageous, unnecessary and thoroughly incompetent,” he charged.

Molinari understood this phenomenon better than anyone.

“Everybody values their train,” he said at the time. “But they want to zero-out other people’s trains.”

Amtrak survived the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s -- although Congress began starving the service.

On the Capitol lawn the day after the this week’s wreck, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Democrat, appeared at a pre-scheduled news conference with other big city mayors about the needs to invest in infrastructure.

“This is a wakeup call,” he said. “This is a reminder how much we rely on mass transit. Why excessive speed was used, I don’t know. But I what I do know is that infrastructure is vital.”

Lowey said at Wednesday’s Appropriations Committee meeting, “Clearly cutting funding drastically does not improve services at Amtrak.”

Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Chaka Fattah, a senior member of the Appropriations panel from Philadelphia, proposed an amendment to pump an additional $1.31 billion to Amtrak.

That would match President Obama’s $2.45 billion budgetary request for the passenger railroad. The Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee was set to award Amtrak $1.14 billion for this spending cycle, a figure many Democrats viewed as just too low, especially in the wake of the accident. The committee rejected Fattah’s amendment.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, upbraided Democrats for linking funding to the crash.

“You have no idea, no idea, what caused this accident,” admonished Simpson. “Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you.”

This is where sequestration comes in.

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, chairman of the Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, noted that adopting Fattah’s plan would have busted the sequestration caps on that spending bill, even if lawmakers wanted to direct more money toward Amtrak. The Appropriations Committee trimmed about $200 million from Amtrak’s Capital Expenditures Account for this spending cycle. But it added nearly $39 million to Amtrak’s operating account. It eliminated no money for safety provisions.

“There is a concept that more money is a solution,” Diaz-Balart said. “That is not always the case.”

And perhaps that’s why people sometimes deride Congress for “throwing money” at issues. After all, the power of the purse is the ultimate authority in Congress.

“Now that’s a tendency we have certainly overcome,” asserted Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

Representing suburban Washington, D.C., Connolly’s long advocated increased funding for the federal Metro subway and bus system around the region. He claims that GOPers consistently reduced infrastructure and transit funding. Part of that is due to sequestration.

“If I may quote Oscar Wilde, we’re in an era here in Congress where we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” chirped Connolly.

Two senior House GOP aides suggested to Fox that at the very least, the Amtrak wreck could foster an effort to modify if not end sequestration.

That’s because Congress may have found itself hemmed in by the sequester -- even if it wanted or needed to flush Amtrak with additional cash due to a possible safety deficiency.

It’s worth noting that the House Appropriations Committee allocated $110 million over the past five years to Amtrak to install Positive Train Control (PTC). That’s the automatic override system designed to brake trains which exceed speed limits. The committee tells Fox that PTC was in fact installed along the section of track in Philadelphia where the train wrecked. But the system was not turned on. Upgrading radios for the PTC system delayed its full service. A higher radio frequency enhances the reliability of PTC.

A 2012 Amtrak inspector general report found that the “most-serious challenge to implementing PTC is acquiring radio frequency” along the northeast corridor. Amtrak’s internal watchdog also blamed the rail line for not including an allotment for PTC in a congressional spending request.

On Friday, the House leadership released the text of a stopgap bill to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat through the end of July, the heart of the summertime construction period.

The thought is that if Congress can ford the immediate crisis with highway funding, lawmakers can find a longer term, permanent solution later this year. Something has to happen. Fiscal conservatives are jumpy because over the past seven years, Congress siphoned around $70 billion away from the Treasury to make up the deficit not covered by the gas tax.

So, this conversation about infrastructure, mass transit, trains, highways, bridges is coming. Congress must soon settle the Highway Trust Fund issue. Sequestration is really putting the screws to basic government spending programs. Democrats want to use Amtrak to bolster their infrastructure and transportation funding pleas.

Of course, there are costs associated with not acting, too. Lawmakers must also weigh the value of these programs. So while members from both parties seek a solution to these issues, they will be mindful of just not the cost, but the value as well.