I don’t normally obtain my politics and policy-making news from the travel section of the newspaper, but this item–the print version of which has been on my desk since Dec. 11–caught my eye for a serious flaw in our appointment process that is affecting the future of the US national rail system, Amtrak.
Arthur Frommer notes that not only was the highly regarded president of Amtrak, David L. Gunn, fired by the board of directors (see Rip Track’s November archives), but also that board separated the profitable Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system and is readying some serious cuts in service elsewhere.
The Amtrak board of directors that approved these changes consists of four members (out of what should be a seven-person board), three of whom have never been confirmed by the Senate. Each holds recess appointments from the Bush administration.
[Additional note: the board also has several vacancies, and is thus operating well short of its congressionally mandated size, as well as with appointees lacking Senate consent.]
Moreover, Gunn had fired back* after the administration had threatened to force Amtrak into bankruptcy.
To what extent were Gunn’s efforts supported by Congress?
Consider this: Several days before Gunn was dismissed, the Senate, by a vote of 93-6, authorized $11.6 billion in the next six years for Amtrak improvements.
Now, I would note that one of the problems Amtrak has long had is that it is too often treated in Congress (especially the Senate, where rural communities in small states that want to keep their train service, no matter how inefficient, are grossly overrepresented) as just another pork-barrel project, rather than as a national public service (or a public utility). But it is especially bad governance to allow a board that has a majority of unconfirmed directors to make major and far-reaching policy decisions.
I have long considered recess appointments (in which the President may unilaterally appoint to any position normally requiring Senate approval while Congress is in recess) to be a major loophole in our Constitution. Presidents can abuse–and this one more than most–a provision meant simply to prevent long vacancies during the formerly long recesses, and treat it as a means to bypass Senate opposition to their cronies and ideological hacks.
The current Ambassador to the UN is, of course, an unconfirmable recess appointee. Important though that position is, I find a recess appointment to such a position, which inherently represents administration priorities, somewhat less troubling than a recess appointment to comprise a majority of a policy-making body like the Amtrak board.
Frommer ends with a call to action with which I concur:
Unfortunately, the time for debate has run out. Those who oppose Amtrak aren’t debating, they’re acting. […]
This issue is too important to ignore. All of us who support this sensible and efficient form of transport should phone and write our representatives in Congress about it â€” and soon.
*the bad pun is mine, not Frommer’s