Ex-Ga. rep. endures nearly two-year wait for Senate confirmation

Lynn Westmoreland visits the state House, January 2016. (AJC Photo / Bob Andres)
Lynn Westmoreland visits the state House, January 2016. (AJC Photo / Bob Andres)

Lynn Westmoreland first nominated for Amtrak board in Oct. 2017

The Georgia-based Trump nominee facing the longest Senate confirmation delay isn't a controversial judge up for a lifetime appointment, nor is it a Cabinet pick weighed down by a web of business interests.

Instead, former Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland has waited more than 660 days to join Amtrak's board of directors due in part to a showdown over passenger rail service in Kansas.

The parochial fight isn’t the only factor that’s slowed the Coweta County Republican’s path to the advisory board: a lack of Senate floor time, scrutiny of Westmoreland’s congressional record and broader mistrust over the Trump administration’s commitment to passenger rail service have also played a role.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, the 69-year-old Westmoreland said he’s still interested in serving a five-year term on the board, which oversees Amtrak’s long-term strategic direction.

“Sometimes these boards get stale and you need a fresh set of eyes to take a look at things,” he said. “My goal is to increase safety, security and ridership.”

It’s unclear when Westmoreland will receive a confirmation vote, but there’s some muted hope senators could approve him as part of a batch of nominees before the chamber adjourns for its August recess.

His most immediate obstacle is a fellow Republican.

Kansas’ Jerry Moran has placed a hold on Westmoreland and two of President Donald Trump’s other Amtrak board picks for months, which he’s been using to convince Amtrak to continue operation of the Southwest Chief, a Chicago to Los Angeles route that passes through portions of Kansas.

"As the divide between urban communities and rural communities in America continues to expand, passenger rail services, like the Southwest Chief, are necessary in connecting Kansans to the rest of the country," Moran told The Topeka Capital-Journal.

Moran and other passenger rail advocates have raised questions about the Trump administration’s commitment to Amtrak after the White House nominated several critics to the board.

“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,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the trade group the Rail Passengers Association. “Amtrak is too important to treat as a reward for political loyalty.”

Moran suggested Tuesday that he wasn’t the only senator with a hold on Trump’s Amtrak board nominees – the Senate does not publicly release such information, so it’s often hard to glean unless a lawmaker admits to it – and that those blockades might soon be lifted.

“We’ve had conversations among those of us who have those holds about the potential release,” he told reporters. “I think we’re close - we’re looking for just a bit of reassurance and then hope that we can get what we believe will be allies of ours on that board.”

Westmoreland worked on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee while serving in the U.S. House, and for a time he led the panel’s railroad subcommittee. He was sharply questioned during his October 2017 Senate confirmation hearing about a pair of votes he cast in 2009 and 2015 to end all federal funding for Amtrak.

Westmoreland said constituents in his west Georgia district “expected me to protect the taxpayers’ interests.”

"I used my vote to remind Amtrak that Congress was watching, and expected careful stewardship of the public investment in its system," he wrote to the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Amtrak got that message, and the significant efficiency improvements that followed helped to keep the national system viable."

Westmoreland also underscored that he understands the importance of Amtrak, and he highlighted his support of a 2015 bill reauthorizing federal funding for the service.

Westmoreland was later approved on a party-line vote by members of the Senate Commerce Committee, a rarity for a position that was once considered uncontroversial.

Senators are unlikely to debate Westmoreland’s nomination individually. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has focused much of the Senate’s limited floor time on judicial nominees and high-level executive branch picks.

Westmoreland’s most likely path to confirmation is as part of a group of nominations, which could prove tricky if individual senators maintain secret holds.

Read more about Westmoreland here.

In Other News