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Column: The Republicans Hate-Hate Relationship with Amtrak

Unlike so many of America's corporate models of stability--WorldCom, Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco, Adelphia Communications--Amtrak is a typical government-subsidized mess in urgent need of managerial and accounting reforms, say congressional conservatives. Things must change. But even then the railroad's future is in the hands of a wicked stepmother. House Majority Leader Dick Armey said to no one's surprise last week that he and his fellow Tories have no"heartfelt affection for Amtrak." Despite all the gracious conservative assistance thrown Amtrak's way over the years,"this operation ... doesn't seem to be able to get on a profitable basis," Armey understated to self-amused effect, I'm sure. Perhaps if the railroad had had Arthur Andersen in its accounting kitchen, things wouldn't"seem" so bleak.

For Amtrak executives, employees, and passengers, however, far more worrisome than lugubrious House Kevorkians must be the White House's repeated assurance that it's there to help."No one wants to see Amtrak die," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta."We are determined to keep Amtrak service going," added OMB Director Mitch Daniels. Unless you're Jeb Bush or some hog-in-heaven Air Force general with a new laser toy, such a pledge from this White House usually means it's time to tinkle on the fire and call in the dogs--especially if you, the supplicant, are phoning from an electoral region less than Bush-happy in 2000, like the Northeast.

The White House displayed its keen interest in the railroad's problem by sending its top man at Transportation up to the Hill last Thursday. There, before a Senate subcommittee, Boxcar Norman couldn't remember if his own department supported a grant or a loan to Amtrak; couldn't remember which program the loan (he finally remembered) would come from; and in general proved himself--there's just no way around this--a lubbering blockhead. And this was the White House's guy in the forefront of Amtrak negotiations.

Naturally, conservatives have had a hate-hate relationship with Amtrak ever since it began operating as a quasi-public corporation in 1971. To their way of thinking, America's passenger-rail service should be all private, sink or swim. This thinking springs from conservatism's libertarian camp and harks back to that quaint era of strict government-business separation--a time, for instance, when the federal government used to fork over millions of acres of public land (once mistakenly thought to be Native American land) at no charge to railroads, which they then sold at a rather tidy profit or offered as collateral. Yes, those were the days of gutsy businessmen unafraid to take risks. Where is that spirit today, what with Amtrak execs standing there so pathetically with their hands out?

At least we can take comfort that conservatives will soon put an end to overall public assistance-to-private-concerns silliness. Sure, Congressional Republicans and the White House may permit Amtrak one more feeding at the public trough, but just around the corner lurks no more Mr. Hand-Out. And Amtrak is just the beginning. Principles are principles, and once they pull the fiscal rug out from under David Gunn, the railroad's president, other corporate chieftains had better watch their government-padded backs.

We know this because of the way conservatives have already cracked down on corporate welfare across the board. Last year alone they held all imaginable manner of public aid to purely private interests at $87 billion--a paltry 30 percent increase in corporate favors since the '94"revolution." Part of these billions, as one example, goes to a couple dozen armaments-starved countries in the form of grants and loans so that always-vulnerable U.S. weapons exporters can sell more things that go boom. There are some needs that simply must be met.

While Dick Armey may have no"heartfelt affection for Amtrak" and would like to see it off the public dole, others may feel the same about the Texas congressional delegation and the trainloads of federal tax dollars it hauls home. This year the Lone Star state will pick up $63,000 of your money for goat-meat research; $100,000 for" community beautification initiatives" in Houston; $500,000 to replace buses in Abilene; another half-million for some business center's"off ramp"; and a cool $8,200,000 for a"fitness" and"wellness" center at a local Air Force Base. (Whatever happened to fit-and-free calisthenics?) And these figures barely scratch the giveaway totals for our rugged individualists down South. They're from the"2002 Pig Book," published online by Citizens Against Government Waste, and when I printed out the entire itemized list for Texas alone it came to 36 pages. Do you have that much affection for Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Phil Gramm?

Perhaps if Amtrak promised to install passenger-car rocket launchers or long-range ICBMs on its cabooses, its problems would be over. It just doesn't know how to relate with the fiscally prudent.