Republican Troubleshooters Demand 190 Years’ Worth of Records
It’s natural, I suppose, for people who have not spent time on Capitol Hill to wonder what those highly privileged people do up there all day – you know, on behalf of the public that elected them and, presumably, also for those who thought someone else would be better. We have been given some insight into that question as regards Republican representatives by an October 20 records request to William J. Flynn, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak, technically the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, sent by four Republican Congressmen from the Republican Office of the House Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.
There is a subcommittee, often many of them, for every committee in Congress (this one is among six under the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, or T & I as it is affectionately known in Washington circles). I’m sure your mind is now trying to wrap itself around what the entire organization chart for the entire Congress must look like. Please stop right there lest you suffer lasting mental harm.
This particular Subcommittee has some pretty impressive sounding responsibilities [https://bit.ly/3knpaqr]:
- “jurisdiction over the economic and safety regulation of railroads and the agencies that administer those regulations. Economic regulation is administered by the five-member Surface Transportation Board (STB). This independent agency also has the authority to address national emergencies as they affect the nation’s rail transportation system.”
- “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is responsible for administering and overseeing railroad safety laws, railroad infrastructure and development programs, performing research and developing technology, and has federal oversight of Amtrak.”
- “Amtrak [established in 1970] is the nation’s major provider of intercity passenger rail service….The Subcommittee continues to oversee efforts to increase efficiency and improve service in Amtrak’s operations.”
- “The Subcommittee also has jurisdiction over the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is responsible for providing regulations and safety oversight of pipelines and pipeline facilities, as well as overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials.”
- “Railroad retirement benefits and unemployment systems, as well as rail labor relations also fall under the jurisdiction of this Subcommittee.”
That’s enough responsibility and overseeing, you would think, to be a full-time job for the Subcommittee members. But two members out of 15 Republicans on the Subcommittee, found time to produce the aforesaid letter to Amtrak. Those four are Ranking Member Rick Crawford (R-AR), fellow Subcommittee-man Scott Perry (R-PA) plus T&I full Committee members, Bob Gibbs (R-OH), and Lloyd Smucker (R-PA). The others? Who knows? Politics, as we will see, is a peculiar affair. Truth is, of course, the letter was written by Subcommittee staff and approved up the chain of command. That’s just how things work.
The letter concerns [drum roll] Joe Biden’s use of Amtrak charter trains for his recent campaigning in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Republicans, ever watchful for profligate spending, claimed not to know what Biden paid for the trains and, through their questions suggested that something was rotten on the railroad tracks. Had they bothered to look first, they would have discovered that “in its disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, the Biden campaign reported spending $265,000 on the train charter. Amtrak says that the starting rate for a charter is $30,000, and that no discount was given.” https://wapo.st/2ThtQCf But who wants to investigate when the opportunity to allege political scandal by an opponent arises? Not Republicans. Notify the media!
The asserted reasons for the Republicans’ deep concerns about Biden’s train charters are that [footnotes omitted],
- “the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak’s charter train redirected Amtrak’s scarce resources during a time of record losses, employee layoffs, and service cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- The premise here is that Joe Biden, a private citizen, somehow commandeered Amtrak’s charter train against Amtrak’s wishes and did so at a particularly bad time. The bad time, of course, was the result of Donald Trump’s failure to act against the virus, but never mind that.
- “We are concerned that the apparent use of a struggling, resource-deprived, publicly-run service for political gain does not serve the best interests of Amtrak or the American taxpayers at this time.”
- Here the premise is that Biden hurt Amtrak by paying it for services rendered in exchange for “political gain.”
- “we question whether the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak caused delays of freight trains at a time when supplies are crucial.”
- Here the Republican Congressmen show profound regard for the nation’s PPE supplies that it believes, for no apparent reason, may have been delayed by Biden’s charter train.
The implication is that Biden somehow purloined the Amtrak trains for “political gain” when Amtrak would have been better off doing something else with its trains, despite the fact of collapsed demand for travel demand due to Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Republican research,
According to Amtrak’s guidelines, charter trains are not a part of its “primary objective” of operating its “core train service safely, punctually, and efficiently.” Amtrak’s guidelines for operating charter trains include requirements that the use of Amtrak’s resources will not impact its regular operations, and that the train “must generate sufficient financial benefit for Amtrak to justify the Amtrak resources and assets.”
Moreover, the Republicans’ preliminary investigation revealed the following salacious information:
The Biden charter train included several Amtrak cars and made multiple stops for campaign events where guests were invited aboard the train. The Biden campaign distributed plastic identification cards to riders designed like actual Amtrak tickets. News reports suggested freight train interactions with the stopped charter train and the potential for delays at campaign stops.
The Republicans clearly believed they were on to a big one. “Abuse of train” is a matter to be taken very seriously, and Amtrak is committed to the policy that the truth must come out.
Now, I happen to have it on good authority that Amtrak is both short-staffed now (COVID-19 layoffs, you know) and struggling to get the trains to run on time (big surprise to past Amtrak users). So, I’m going to help out these Republicans who apparently don’t know how to conduct even a minimal investigation but who love to issue press releases. I’m going to suggest answers to the ten questions and offer them, hereby, to Amtrak and the Subcommittee free of charge. This will help enable Amtrak to answer the questions by November 2, as demanded (coincidentally, I’m sure, the day before the election), unless … well, let’s not spoil the surprise. See below and buckle up.
- The total cost to Amtrak, including in equipment, resources, and salaries, to operate the Biden campaign charter train.
- Answer: “A fully-allocated cost analysis of a small set of charters would entail dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours of staff time. Since the Subcommittee has indicated its sensitivity to Amtrak’s resource use, we’re sure you won’t mind if we “hard pass” on this question,” but if you insist we address it, you may expect the answer around June 2021. We don’t mean to be disrespectful but note for the record and in our defense that many congressional subpoenas (you just sent a letter) have been flatly rejected out-of-hand by the administration. What’s good for the goose and all that…
2. The total cost paid to Amtrak for the Biden charter train and whether the Biden campaign received any financial discount, reduced fares, special treatment, or special services for using Amtrak’s resources to campaign through Pennsylvania and Ohio.
- Answer: This information was largely covered in the press already. You can find it here: https://wapo.st/3dPoYxv But, be advised, you’re not going to like the reporting on Republicans’ long-standing efforts to cut Amtrak’s budget and the historical data about other candidates who have used Amtrak trains in campaigns.
3. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train delayed any Amtrak trains or disrupted any Amtrak services.
- Answer: We’ll look into this when we can, but it’s doubtful. It’s often hard to identify exactly what “causes” a particular delay, but we will get back to you. Soon. Promise.
4. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train received track preference over any freight trains or other trains.
- Answer: That information is also difficult to identify since we normally don’t have to keep that data to run a railroad, but, as above, we’ll get back to you. Soon. Promise.
5. Whether riders on the Biden campaign charter train purchased tickets to board the train.
- Answer: We think you should know the answer to this already. Biden chartered the train, so there would be no reason to sell tickets except possibly as a fund-raising activity, the conduct of which is not Amtrak’s business. Perhaps another federal agency or body of Congress can help you with this. We hope so because we take your need for information very seriously.
6. The number of Amtrak employees taken off their regular duties to staff the Biden campaign charter train, including any overtime hours worked.
- Answer: We don’t understand the question. Working on charters are part of the “regular duties” of employees when charters are sold. Amtrak is in the passenger train business and charter trains are part of that business. Amtrak, as you know ,or have reason to know, was paid for the charters according to standard charges that cover all costs to the extent possible.
7. A copy of standard operating procedures or similar documents utilized by Amtrak and its employees in operating standard charter trains.
- Answer: We believe you already possess this information since you cited our procedures in your letter. We respectfully decline to provide duplicate information. We’re sure you understand we are busy trying to run a railroad. If you don’t understand that, we can’t help you.
8. A copy of any documents, standard operating procedures, or guidelines Amtrak has for trains chartered for campaign and/or political events, particularly presidential campaigns.
- Answer: We are initiating a company-wide search for these documents. Since the request was not time-limited, the hunt for historical versions of any current documents will likely take some time, so don’t expect anything before the election. We will get back to you. Soon. Promise.
9. A historical list of any time Amtrak trains have been previously chartered for campaign usage and the costs of those resources and costs paid by the individual candidate’s campaign.
- Answer: Well, that’s a doozy, all right. We will certainly initiate a good faith search but estimate this will take the balance of 2020, 2021 and possibly 2022 since trains run by Amtrak and its predecessors for campaigns likely began in 1836 and have been used, according to reported sources, by at least Harrison, Carter, Ford, Bush (both) and Clinton. You did not specify whether you want the costs, whose estimates will necessarily be speculative, in current dollars or constant dollars. We await your clarification.
Meanwhile, be advised that good-faith compliance with the aforementioned requests will require Amtrak to suspend for the foreseeable future all passenger service in the Northeast United States until further notice, starting November 4, 2020. Have a nice day.
10. A written response on how the Biden campaign charter train remained in compliance with Amtrak guidance and procedures on COVID-19.
- Amtrak’s COVID-19 practices are set out on our website. You can find our website at www.amtrak.com. We assume the Subcommittee knows how to use a computer. Have a nice day
I believe my suggestions will do much to move this process along at the pace it deserves.