WASHINGTON — A simmering impasse over confirmation of nominees for Amtrak’s board of directors has reached a boil, with both Republican and Democratic senators objecting to the makeup of the group advanced by President Joe Biden.
At issue is that only one of the six nominees — Normal, Ill., Mayor Chris Koos — represents an area outside the Northeast, even though the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act calls for the board to reflect “the nation’s geographic diversity.” Koos is one of five Democrats recently re-nominated by Biden after none received confirmation prior to last November’s midterm elections. The sixth nominee, a Republican, was recently added.
The issue came to a head last week when a group of Republican Senators, led by Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the ranking member of the committee that holds confirmation hearings, vowed to block the five Democratic nominees unless at least one of them was removed from consideration. A separate letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg criticized the Administration for spending too much money on Northeast Corridor projects at the expense of the rest of the nation.
Then, on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), up for re-election next year in a GOP-leaning state, informed Biden in a letter that Tester will the confirmations on hold because of the geographic issue. An accompanying press release characterizes Tester’s objection as a “fight for rural America’s seat at the table.”
Geographic diversity requirement
Section 22202 of the IIJA legislation, passed with bipartisan support in 2021, contains Amtrak reauthorization provisions insisted upon by Tester and Republican supporters from other rural U.S. states. Among them are residency requirements for potential Amtrak board members, with two members each to represent the Northeast Corridor, state-supported routes, and long-distance routes. The goal is to adequately and fairly reflect the needs of passengers served by each of the three service lines.
Two additional nominees, potentially with hands-on industry knowledge, may be chosen from any region. This means that no more than four members can represent any one category of service; the law also says selection of nominees should consider representation for labor and the disabled community.
These conditions were a response to a 2018 suggestion by Amtrak’s senior management, with the current Board’s acquiescence, to replace the portion of the Southwest Chief route between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., with buses — a proposal that drew a heated response from legislators along the route.
Another condition in the same law dictates that Amtrak funding be separated into spending for the Northeast Corridor and National Network (state-supported and long distance). Management is currently seeking to slant that division more toward the Northeast Corridor [see “Amtrak mobility, pricing affected …,” News Wire, April 7, 2023].
Expired terms and current nominees
All of the existing board members’ terms, including that of Chairman Anthony R. Coscia, who is from the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, have expired. They continue to serve until new members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
Before the geographic-balance requirements became law, President Donald Trump in 2020 had nominated a group including Koos; a slate of Republicans supporting his re-election; and Sarah Feinberg, a former Federal Railroad Administration Administrator.
Only Koos, who had been sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was deemed acceptable to Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Moran was one of six Republican and Democratic senators from Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico who took an active role in making future Amtrak funding contingent on saving the Chief. Since no other nominees passed Moran’s muster, none were confirmed prior to the 2020 election.
With more pressing initiatives taking priority, Biden didn’t get around to advancing potential Board members until April 2022. His five nominees were all Democrats:
— Coscia, chairman of the lame-duck board. He was in that position when Joe Boardman was ousted as Amtrak president, ex-Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson and former Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman were hired, and current CEO Stephen Gardner was elevated from executive vice president. Coscia, a 2010 Obama Administration appointee, became chairman in 2013.
— Koos, mayor of Normal since 2003.
— Samuel Lathem, retired president of the Delaware AFL-CIO.
— David Capozzi, a Washington, D.C.-area former national advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
— Robin Wiessmann, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and former Pennsylvania state treasurer.
Biden recently added Joel Szabat, identified in last week’s Cruz letter as “a Republican from Maryland.” Szabat is a former military officer who was previously confirmed by the Senate as President Trump’s Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation and International Affairs in 2019.
How were the nominees chosen?
The White House press office never responded to a Trains News Wire email sent in April 2022 — about a month before Biden’s first slate of nominees was announced — seeking information on the selection process. Durbin’s office confirmed that the Illinois Senator championed Koos but had little knowledge of others being considered. Once the nominees were known, industry sources pointed to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as having a significant impact on the choices.
Republican Senate leadership failed to advance any nominees in time for a Sept. 7, 2022, confirmation hearing, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would have had to approve any individual. News Wire learned several names had been proposed, but no action was taken.
Vetting potential appointees is a lengthy, complicated process that involves background checks by the FBI and other agencies. That task had been completed for Koos in 2020 and would have been easy for Szabat because he had already received Senate confirmation for a different position.
The process yielded no nominees from west of the Mississippi River and only one residing outside Northeast Corridor states. Except for Coscia, already an Amtrak insider, none have the kind of rail transportation or hospitality experience that would be helpful in evaluating current management on behalf of the traveling public.
Lathem brings labor union experience, though not directly in the rail or hospitality sector, and Capozzi is clearly qualified to represent the interests of people with disabilities. Wiessmann has valuable financial experience but otherwise, as with the other two Democrats and one Republican, doesn’t check any service-line box outside of the Northeast Corridor. Long-distance and state-supported trains do operate on the Corridor, but citing that loophole clearly short-circuits the legislation’s intent.
The Republican letter states, “It’s hard to believe that there are no qualified individuals from outside the Northeast Corridor that could be found to add fresh perspectives to Amtrak’s Board of Directors and, most importantly, bring it into compliance with federal law.”
Equally hard to believe is that there was not more active participation by the challenging Democrat and Republican Senators before Biden’s choices were announced. Belatedly, the matter is now on the front burner for all concerned.