In 2008, the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Bush White House were at odds over an Amtrak bill. Democrats wanted to double Amtrak’s budget. The Bush administration wanted to zero it out. A reauthorization bill had languished for years and funding was static.
Then in September, a commuter passenger rail train collided with a freight train in Los Angeles killing 25 people and injuring dozens. Suddenly, Congress did what it does best: React.
Instantly, passing a bill addressing rail safety needs became a priority. With the added urgency, Congress attached the stalled Amtrak reauthorization bill to a separate rail safety measure and it cleared Congress within weeks. President George W. Bush, who had once threatened to veto the Amtrak bill, signed it with little fanfare.
That bill expired in 2013, and Congress still needs to pass a new one. The House, in a rare show of bipartisanship, passed a reauthorization in March. It didn’t include a big funding boost like in 2008, but there is one notable provision: The profitable Northeast Corridor could reinvest in its own battered infrastructure rather than have to subsidize other routes around the country that don’t make money.
Amtrak has long been a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, with many Republicans wanting the federal government out of the railroad business and pushing to privatize it. Then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain voted against the aforementioned Amtrak bill in 2008. Mitt Romney targeted it as a place to cut in 2012. Meanwhile many Democrats point overseas to Japan and Germany and argue the United States has fallen behind by not investing in rail.
Tuesday night’s devastating derailment on the Northeast Corridor isn’t going to change that debate. But don’t be surprised if the Senate suddenly finds time to take up the Amtrak reauthorization bill.