CQ Budget Tracker

AMTRAK ACRIMONY: Congress gave Amtrak too much power in a 2008 rail law, according to a federal appeals court ruling that could bode poorly for the struggling passenger railroad bemoaned by many in Congress.
The decision, which struck down key provisions that sought to improve the performance of Amtrak, is likely to send the case to the Supreme Court, CQ’s Todd Ruger reports. A loss for the government could add to Amtrak’s budget woes and possibly endanger the coalition of lawmakers that has continued to fund passenger rail service for the country. Freight railroads contend Congress unconstitutionally gave Amtrak the power to create federal regulations and to enhance its commercial position at the expense of other railroads — especially when those same rules can then be used to resolve disputes between Amtrak and freight rail carriers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit wrote that the architects of the law (PL 110-432) might share pride in the punctuality of train schedules much like John Steinbeck in East of Eden. “But as we’ve shown, there are limits to how far Congress may go to ensure Amtrak’s on-time performance,” the D.C. Circuit states. The D.C. Circuit ruling raises a larger question about whether congressional insistence on Amtrak running like a for-profit entity is actually throwing it into complicated regulatory territory that weakens its ability to function effectively as an arm of government. But the ruling is unlikely to change the age-old line from the Amtrak-averse in Congress that the railroad needs to function more like a business – even if doing so puts Amtrak in legal jeopardy.

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