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“Stressed To The Breaking-Point”: House Republicans Aim To Cut Amtrak Funding The Day After Philadelphia Derailment

A New York–bound Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last night, leaving at least six passengers dead and more than 200 injured. Department of Transportation and National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the reason for the accident, which is sure to be a flashpoint in an ongoing battle to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

The debate resumes today: The House Appropriations committee already had plans to mark up a bill on Wednesday that would, among other things, cut funding to Amtrak from $1.4 billion to $1.14 billion. (Britain, for the record, spends $8 billion annually on its rail network.) Not all Republicans are on board with the cuts. Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Wednesday promised he’s “not in that camp” and “if that bill shows a reduction when it hits the floor, myself and others, I think you’re going to see amendments to make sure that there is stable funding on the northeast corridor.”

President Richard Nixon created Amtrak in 1970 to boost passenger rail service, but he made it a for-profit corporation. That’s the cause of many its political troubles today. Amtrak has never been able to turn a profit, and Republicans—who favor a fully privatized rail system—are loath to spend taxpayer dollars on a money-losing operations. They have repeatedly threatened to slash federal funding for Amtrak, which has struggled to make do with what Congress gives it. In an annual report to Congress from February, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman described “critical infrastructure stressed to the breaking-point” that result in “frequent service meltdowns”: “Efforts by Amtrak, the freight railroad industry, and state and local governments to address these problems are thwarted by the lack of adequate and reliable Federal funding to match state and local investments in rail, and to attract private investment capital and facilitate public-private partnerships.”

And yet, rail safety has improved in the last decade. The Huffington Post notes that accidents in 2014 were down 42 percent since 2006. Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership on the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., hit an all-time high in 2014. Amtrak accounts for over three-fourths of air and rail travel between Washington and New York, and two congressman happened to be on the same train last night: Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who got off shortly before the derailment, and former Congressman Patrick Murphy, who was on it. Boardman says even the popular Northeast corridor is starved  “of the vital capital necessary to maintain and expand upon that success.”

2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the state of U.S. rail infrastructure a C+, slightly higher than the infrastructure grade for the nation as a whole (D+). By 2040, Amtrak expects traffic in the congested Northeast corridor to quadruple today’s ridership. “To meet future demand in the Northeast Corridor for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the corridor, estimated investments are about $10 billion over the next 15 years to achieve a state of good repair and to increase train capacity by 40%,” ASCE writes. “Maintaining adequate track capacity to address expanding passenger and freight needs is among the largest challenges in creating a competitive passenger railroad network.”

Republicans don’t view passenger rail as energy-efficient travel that could only exist with public funds, but a sign of government mismanagement. Mitt Romney, while campaigning in 2012, said, “The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that.” But passenger rail, particularly the dream of bullet trains nationwide, is exactly the kind of project that necessitates government assistance—just like the transcontinental railroad did. Conservatives may liken it to a boondoggle, but California is constructing the nation’s first bullet train, at an estimated cost of $68 billion, with federal subsidies making up $3.3 billion of the secured funding. Amtrak puts estimates of the amount needed for an East Coast high-speed rail route at upwards of $110 billion. The private sector won’t take the risk on such a high startup cost. Yet, the House appropriations bill is clear: Not only does Amtrak receive less money, but “no funding is provided for high-speed rail.”

In April, the National Journal cited conservative funding battles as a main reason why America struggles to keep its rail functional and lags so far behind Western Europe and East Asia, which have faster, more efficient trains. Tea Party Republicans are responsible for shuttering the 2009 stimulus’ $8 billion in funds to connect 80 percent of the country to high-speed trains—the bulk of which would have gone to California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. But when Republican governors Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich swept into office in three of the four states, they rejected the hundreds  of millions of dollars in federal money. The funds were redirected to other transportation upgrades. But Walker later changed his mind, deciding that his state could use $150 million for Amtrak upgrades after all.


By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, May 13, 2015

May 14, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Congress, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad News For Americans Who Eat Food

In December, Americans who eat food received some very good news. A sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, approved by both chambers with large, bipartisan majorities, cleared Congress, and was quickly signed into law by President Obama.

The long-overdue law expands the FDA’s ability to recall tainted foods, increases inspections, demands accountability from food companies, and oversees farming — all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This was the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in more than 70 years.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, the Republican-led House is fighting to gut the law.

Budget cuts proposed by House Republicans to the Food and Drug Administration would undermine the agency’s ability to carry out a historic food-safety law passed by Congress just five months ago, food safety advocates say. […]

To carry out the new law, President Obama is seeking $955 million for food safety at the FDA in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Last week, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA pared back that amount to $750 million, which is $87 million less than the figure the agency is currently receiving for food safety.

“This subcommittee has begun making some of the tough choices necessary to right the ship,” said Chairman Jack Kingston, (R-Ga.).The full committee was scheduled to vote on the proposed cuts Tuesday, and the budget proposal was expected to pass.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee approved the cuts yesterday, which are severe enough to prevent the FDA from implementing the new law. Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Health Group, part of a coalition of public health advocates and food makers, said this week, “These cuts could seriously harm our ability to protect the food supply.”

Boy, those midterm elections really set the country on the right path, didn’t they?

It’s also worth appreciating the fact that these cuts to food safety were made in the name of fiscal responsibility, but it’s a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish. Indeed, cutting funding on food safety is likely to cost us more money, not less.

I realize this may seem counter-intuitive. I can even imagine some Fox News personality telling viewers, “Those wacky liberals think it costs money to cut spending! What fools!”

But this just requires a little bit of thought. When we cut spending on food safety, we save a little money on inspection, but end up paying a lot of money on health care costs when consumers get sick.

The GOP approach is misguided as a matter of public health, public safety, and budgeting.


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly, June 1, 2011

June 2, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, GOP, Government, Health Care, Ideology, Lawmakers, Politics, President Obama, Public, Public Health, Regulations, Republicans | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s In The Compromise Spending Bill?

After a marathon four-day bill drafting session, the House Appropriations Committee early Tuesday morning unveiled compromise legislation to fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year and cut $38.5 billion from current spending levels.

House Republican leaders struck a deal with Senate Democrats and the White House late Friday after pushing to cut $61 billion from current spending levels. GOP leaders hope to put the bill on the floor Wednesday, with Senate action expected Thursday. The current stopgap funding measure expires Friday.  

Overall, labor, health, and education programs received a $5.5 billion cut from last fiscal year’s level, including the cancellation of 55 programs for savings of more than $1 billion. The final legislation prevents 218,000 low-income children from being removed from Head Start and rejects education grant funding that would have cost approximately 10,000 jobs and reduced educational services to 1 million students, according to Senate Appropriations Committee summary.

Here’s where the spending cuts (and, in the case of Defense, the increases) come from:

  • TRANSPORTATION AND HOUSING. These programs would receive the largest cut under the compromise, $12.3 billion from fiscal 2010 levels, including a total of $2.9 billion in cuts for high-speed rail, $991 million in cuts to transit programs, and a $3.2 billion rescission of highway funding, including $630 million worth of old earmarks. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s community development fund would get a $942 million cut.
  • SCIENCE. The continuing resolution also blocks funding for the establishment of a Climate Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; for the approval of new fisheries catch-share programs in certain fisheries; and for NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to engage in bilateral activities with China.
  • AGRICULTURE. Agriculture programs would see $3 billion in cuts from fiscal 2010, including a $10 million cut to food and safety inspection, but the plan allows “for uninterrupted meat, poultry, and egg products inspection activities of the” Agriculture Department, the committee said. The USDA’s Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC, received $6.75 billion, which is a $504 million cut from the fiscal 2010 level.
  • ENERGY. Energy and water programs were reduced by a relatively modest $1.7 billion. The bill funds the Army Corps of Engineers at the president’s request level of $4.9 billion and supports existing applications for renewable energy loan guarantees at the Department of Energy.
  • WASHINGTON, D.C. The compromise restores a long-standing provision against the use of federal and local funds for abortions in the District of Columbia, and includes the reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, along with a $2.3 million funding increase, to stop the termination of the program and allow new students to participate.
  • HOMELAND SECURITY. A $784 million net reduction over last year, including a $786 million cut to Federal Emergency Management Agency first-responder grants and elimination of $264 million in funding that was previously targeted to earmarks.
  • DEFENSE. Funded at $513 billion in the CR, about $5 billion above last year. The bill also includes an additional $157.8 billion for overseas contingency operations (emergency funding).

By: Humberto Sanchez, National Journal, April 12, 2011

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Deficits, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Government, Health Care, Homeland Security, Jobs, Labor, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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