Monday, June 24, 2013

What’s with Congressman Mica, the foodie?

Written by  Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor
Will somebody pass John Mica some Pepto Bismol? Surely the 11-term House Republican from Florida suffers recurrent gastrointestinal distress resulting from digging into, examining, criticizing, and lambasting Amtrak’s troubled food and beverage income statement more often than the FBI excavates searching for Jimmy Hoffa.

Some wonder if Mica is auditioning to become the Amtrak equivalent of Food Network’s Restaurant Makeover chef Robert Irvine—combining, for good measure, the irritable personality of Fox Network’s Hell’s Kitchen chef Gordon Ramsey.

What is going on with Republican politicians and food? In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is engaged in a jihad against the sale of super-sized sugary soft drinks, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held a press conference to announce a surgical remedy to his overeating.

Mica, however, is a federal budget watchdog, whose numbers snooping extends beyond Amtrak’s menu offerings. Recently, he distributed a photo, slipped to him by a whistleblower, of a General Accountability Office official sipping champagne in the bathtub of a pricy Las Vegas hotel—all at taxpayer expense.

As for Amtrak, he bristles that the federally subsidized passenger railroad has lost more than $800 million on its food and beverage sales over the past decade—nearly equivalent to its annual federal subsidy to keep passenger trains rolling nationwide. That does not include the cost of maintaining the dining car fleet, which is found in the mechanical, rather than food and beverage, budget.

So Mica—whose boyhood home was train-mecca Binghamton, N.Y., and who actually signed the front of paychecks as a business owner before entering politics—has assigned himself as Amtrak’s dining-car cost-chopper-in-chief.

Mica’s latest apoplectic spasm followed Amtrak’s recruiting of gourmet chefs to develop new and more healthy Amtrak menu offerings aimed at boosting customer satisfaction.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman is running out of fingers and toes on which to count the number of times he has been summoned to Capitol Hill to explain the cost/price differential of a shot of bourbon sold aboard the Empire Builder and a luncheon hamburger served up on the Southwest Chief.

Trains and culinary fare have been knotted on passenger trains long before the legendary E.M. Frimbo—a.k.a. the World’s Greatest Railroad Buff—took to writing in The New Yorker magazine about railroad gastronomic delights.

John Steinbeck wrote of train travel, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” And what do American train travelers cherish? Meals. In the long past salad days of train travel, memorable meals abounded: Florida shrimp creole, cream shrimp and oyster casserole, grits and gravy, and pumpkin meringue pie. Long-distance trains, after all, are rolling hotels, and remarkable meals do make a difference. Whether those meals should be loss leaders is up for debate.

When Amtrak, following its creation four decades ago, scrapped dining car china, white table linens and freshly prepared food in favor of pre-plated airline-type meals, train travel lost some allure. In 1981, then-Amtrak President Graham Claytor (previously president of Southern Railway and Secretary of the Navy) restored to Amtrak’s dining cars freshly prepared meals, saying, “In trying to make [food] cheap, we made some of it inedible.”

Another Amtrak cost-cutting measure was to outsource the buying and stocking of its 11 commissaries nationwide. But the losses persisted. The General Accountability Office reported in 2005 that for every $2 spent by Amtrak riders for onboard food and beverages, Amtrak was losing $1.

In Amtrak’s defense, it is not visionless with regard to its food and beverage costs. Inspector General Ted Alves told Congress last year that Amtrak “already improved or has actions under way to improve the economy, efficiency, and internal controls of onboard food and beverage service.”

Mica would like to privatize the entirety of Amtrak, and a step in that direction is to outsource all dining car functions. New England dinner train operator Cape Cod Central Railroad hired a caterer to prepare fresh meals served on china and table linens—and “at least broke even,” said a former shareholder.

Amtrak’s situation is more complicated.

While the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which created Amtrak, prohibited contracting out that would result in employee layoffs, food and beverage service specifically was exempted. Not desiring a clash with its labor unions, which could have shut down Amtrak, contracting out was not pursued other than the outsourcing of commissaries.

The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 revisited the subject, containing a clause: “Amtrak may … provide food and beverage services on its trains only if revenues from the services each year at least equal the cost of providing the services.” Clearly that has not been the case, but Amtrak has continued to provide the service, without objection from Congress, rather than pursue contracting out or eliminating dining car service.

Included in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 was an instruction that Amtrak be more aggressive in contracting out, but first to bargain collectively with its labor unions. It did so with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, only to reach an impasse, with both sides agreeing to binding arbitration.

The arbitration award sided with the union, holding contracting out “would likely include significant instability and, at least in the short run, would create far more productivity problems than would be solved.”

So there Amtrak sits, between a choice of leaving passengers hungry and thirsty by eliminating dining cars, hazarding a shutdown if the unions do not agree to contracting out of food and beverage service, or risking passenger defections by raising food and beverage prices that already are viewed by many riders as high.

Congress, of course, could short-circuit the collective bargaining process and order the contracting out of food and beverage service. But while House Republicans likely could muster a majority, Democrats controlling the Senate are unlikely to be fellow travelers. Reflective of Democratic views is the comment of Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia—the senior minority Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee: “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers.”

Although Mica no longer is chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who is less combative toward Amtrak, succeeded him), Mica remains a T&I Committee member and also chairs the Government Operations Subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That’s still a powerful perch from which to rain down thunder on Amtrak—especially with Congress still mulling how much of a federal subsidy it will provide Amtrak for fiscal year 2014, and the conditions attached to that subsidy.

(Frank Wilner is author of the new book, “Amtrak: Past, Present, Future,” available through Simmons-Boardman Books.