Happening Now

Senate Committee Advances Amtrak Board Nominees

May 20, 2020

At a hearing today, three Trump Administration nominees to the Amtrak Board were advanced in three party-line votes, sending the controversial figures to the full Senate for final confirmation.

Joseph Gruters, Lynn Westmoreland and Rick Dearborn were advanced by three 14 to 12 votes, with Senators voting along party lines. The committee endorsement advanced over the objection of Ranking Member Maria Cantwell of Washington (D).

“We also have… three nominees to the Amtrak Board,” said Senator Cantwell. “These nominees, in my opinion, are controversial and have not appeared before this committee in the current congress. Further, they have been on committee markups multiple times only to advance on party-line votes. I hope that we can continue to work through these issues and questions on a more bipartisan basis.”

Rail Passengers has expressed similar concerns over the pattern on display in these nominations. We initially took a wait-and-see approach when the Trump Administration nominated former Congressman Lynn Westmoreland in October of 2017, who voted in 2009 and again in 2015 to end all funding to Amtrak. However, during his confirmation hearings, Westmoreland said he now understood the importance of government funding to Amtrak.

That optimism faded when the Trump Administration nominated Rick Dearborn, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, an organization that has consistently called for the elimination of Amtrak. The pattern of repeated nominations of anti-Amtrak candidates to the Amtrak board eventually forced Rail Passengers to stand up and vocally oppose Senate confirmation of these nominees.

“It has become painfully clear that these nominees are being selected not for their railroad expertise or ability to advance U.S. transportation, but because they were early supporters of Candidate Trump,” concluded Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “Amtrak is too important to treat as a reward for political loyalty.”

In the interest of giving all the nominees a fair hearing, Rail Passengers has reached out to Westmoreland, Gruters and Dearborn, inviting them to engage in a conversation about their vision for the future of Amtrak. We have yet to hear back. (The Rail Passengers Association did go on record applauding the decision by the Trump Administration to nominate Chris Koos of Illinois and Sarah E. Feinberg of West Virginia to be Directors on the Amtrak Board of Directors.)

The nominees will now go to the full Senate for final confirmation. Previously, these nominees have been held up by Rail Passengers’ 2019 Golden Spike-winner Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), a move protesting Amtrak’s 2018 decision to terminate the Southwest Chief (which Rail Passengers successfully opposed). With Amtrak’s recent recommittal to the Southwest Chief, it is unclear how the three nominees will fare in a Senate vote.