Government spending boosters using the Philadelphia train derailment tragedy to demand more money for Amtrak might want to ask the White House why President Obama has failed for 127 days to even nominate an administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, instead leaving in charge as “acting” chief a 37-year-old Obama loyalist who reportedly has little substantial railroad experience.
Running the agency is Sarah Feinberg, who was a close aide to Rahm Emanuel when he was White House chief of staff and who was married to former top Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer, though they have separated, according to a report.
Whatever her credentials and abilities – Feinberg is respected in Washington and, if she can survive working for Rahm, must have some degree of talent and tenacity – her role as “acting” chief limits her ability to get things done, according to Politico:
President Barack Obama has failed to nominate a leader for the Federal Railroad Administration for 127 days and counting, a vacancy that experts say could hamper the federal response to the accident that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.
“Career employees who have been here before this administrator and will be here after this administrator know that an acting administrator has less authority,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has issued the FRA a flurry of recommended safeguards over the years that the agency has yet to implement. He said the lack of a permanent leader can only be a “detriment.”
The agency’s acting chief, Sarah Feinberg, is a former Facebook executive and ex-aide to Rahm Emanuel who has close ties to the White House and much popularity on the Hill — but little substantial railroad experience. And as only an interim boss, she faces obstacles in even attempting to make the changes that FRA critics want to see at the agency, which some lawmakers have lambasted as too slow to regulate and too cozy with the railroads it oversees.
The agency also hasn’t had a deputy administrator since September.
The White House praises Feinberg’s performance, which has included an aggressive outreach to Congress that won over some of the agency’s harshest critics. This week, she briefed more than a half-dozen lawmakers about the Amtrak crash and spent two days near the scene in Philadelphia, where sources say she headed barely 15 minutes after Tuesday night’s accident.
Still, the White House is showing no signs it plans to fill the slot anytime soon, let alone put her in it. And with lawmakers already pointing fingers in the wake of the crash, and reform proposals already being floated, experts said the FRA needs a permanent head who has the credibility that comes with Senate confirmation and is less immune to the political forces that will shape the response to the safety crisis.
If Feinberg is being road tested for the job, and Obama things she’s right for it, it’s time to install her. Or, perhaps better, put someone in the position who knows something about trains.