Due to scheduling conflicts with a certain island nation’s democratic rituals, CSPAN didn’t have a channel to spare for today’s auto safety legislation hearing before the the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. Which means your faithful blogger is at the mercy of the mainstream media’s digestive process in this matter. Regardless, it seems clear by now that the legislation has driven the industry back to the Republican bosom, after a period of post-bailout estrangement. These newly-re-allied forces collectively raised concerns about a number of key proposals presented by Rep Henry Waxman’s Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, including the un-capping NHTSA fines, privacy issues relating to “black box” event data recorders, new car sale vehicle fees, pedal clearance standards, and increased regulation of an industry with state-owned competitors.
It might, however, be going too far to describe automakers and Republicans as a truly united front. The automakers, speaking through Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers president Dave McCurdy and Alliance of International Automobile Manufacturers president Mike Stanton, focused their opposition on the proposed un-capping of NHTSA’s power to fine automakers for delaying recalls. In fact, McCurdy refused to fight most of the proposed measures, voicing his organization’s support for mandatory brake-override systems, keyless ignition standards, and event data recorder standards (if not the exact measure proposed in the MVSA) in his opening statement. Even an increase in NHTSA fines was found acceptable to the AAM as long as it helped preserve caps on NHTSA fines. Toyota could have faced $13.8b in fines under an uncapped version of the current fine structure, and would have faced $69b in fines under the proposed legislation.
But that wasn’t the only issue McCurdy took a stand on. Towards the end of his statement, he really gets going on the topic of giving NHTSA the power to stop vehicle sales:
Regarding granting NHTSA imminent hazard authority, the proposed provisions are so lacking in standards and the opportunity to be heard before a neutral decision-maker as to violate the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
McCurdy’s statement closes by blasting the proposed $250m maximum fine for auto executives as unfair, arguing that it was over 50 times harsher than the maximum penalty for financial crimes under Sarbanes-Oxley. “I thought that must be a typo,” said McCurdy. Of course he mayjust have been cranky about having to remind congress that:
A proposed transmission configuration standard is not necessary because such a standard already exists.
The Republicans, meanwhile appear to have been somewhat less strategic and more polemical than the industry. McCurdy’s statement conspicuously stayed away from the new vehicle sale fee issue, but both he and Stanton testified against increasing NHTSA’s budget without a clear mission. Republicans were less equivocal, laying into the provision along anti-tax lines. A sampling comes courtesy of Rep Joe Barton and the Detroit Free Press:
This bill imposes more taxes, gives big government new unfettered authorities, and provides potentially crippling penalties on industry while providing questionable safety benefits
You get the picture. The Republicans also echoed McCurdy’s concerns about event data recorder privacy, and imminent hazard authority, with John Dingell (D-M) crossing the aisle to join arms on the latter issue according to the WSJ [sub].
Under this hail of attacks along all-too familiar expansion-of-government lines, the Obama administration shrank away from a wholehearted endorsement of the proposed legislation. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland excused himself from an exhaustive opinion, pleading that
Time has not permitted full review of all of the draft legislation’s provisions throughout the Executive Branch
As a result, his testimony appears to have been less than entirely illuminating. He argued in favor of imminent hazard, on the grounds that other consumer protection agencies are granted the same power. Though anxious to not associate the White House with any of the proposed legislation’s more controversial measures, Strickland did concede that:
NHTSA is a strong Agency; this bill’s authorities would make us stronger. If enacted, these measures would significantly increase the agency’s leverage in dealing with manufacturers
Full prepared testimony from today’s hearing can be found at the House Committee On Energy And Commerce.