Automakers stay cozy in U.S. capital

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What may make the lobbying at NHTSA by its former insiders effective is that the agency is severely underfunded and understaffed to begin with. Its budget for vehicle safety was $141 million in fiscal 2013; the budget for aviation safety at the Federal Aviation Administration was $1.25 billion. Yet highway deaths easily outstrip aviation deaths year after year — in fact, according to one calculation, the risk of a fatality on the average drive to the airport alone is far more likely than it is on the flight.

Adding to NHTSA's travails is the sheer political power of the auto industry and its legion of Washington lobbyists, who easily outgun auto safety advocates in the halls of Congress.

Safety advocates point to the Jeep Cherokee case as a perfect example. Last June, Chrysler defiantly refused an NHTSA request to recall 2.7 million 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and other models, despite an agency finding that the faulty fuel tank design made them unusually prone to fires after rear-end collisions. The design had contributed to more than 50 deaths in fires, including one of Cassidy Jarmon, a 4-year-old Texas girl who was strapped in a car seat when her family's Grand Cherokee was hit from behind in 2006 and burst into flames. She died of burns and smoke inhalation two days later.

The standoff was resolved during a private meeting of Strickland, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne. Chrysler agreed to a low-cost option of installing trailer hitches, supposedly to protect the fuel tank from impact, on 1.5 million vehicles. But safety experts say the remedy is unproven and may even be hazardous.

At the very least, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Chrysler should have been required to test the solution before moving ahead. "In Ronald Reagan's words, trust but verify," says Ditlow, whose group first petitioned NHTSA to investigate the fuel tanks. The car in which Cassidy died was equipped with a trailer hitch, he observes. "I'm terribly afraid there are going to be more 4-year-olds who burn to death in Jeeps with trailer hitches on."

A solution to revolving doors has been sought virtually since the doors started spinning. Under Obama administration rules, former top agency officials are barred from lobbying anyone in the executive branch or representing a client on a matter in which they were involved during their service for two years after departing government.

That may limit Strickland's responsibilities for a time at Venable, which counts Chrysler among its top clients in Washington and has also represented the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for all the big automakers. But he acknowledges that he's largely free to advise his new colleagues on tactical approaches in NHTSA cases that may arise over the next two years.

The best safeguard against ethical conflicts from the revolving door is the work ethic of the people moving between industry and government, he says. "I've never thought at any moment about where my decisions will land me next," he says. "If you're a quality employee with great expertise and you're honorable and ethical, you will have opportunities when you decide to leave regardless of what your decisions are."

But that places a great burden on human nature. Government can't pay young staff members or even top officials enough to keep them from seeking higher salaries in the private sector. Only oversight by a Congress and president truly devoted to the public interest, not commercial interests, can keep regulatory agencies focused on the people's business.

But when business gets its say on Capitol Hill and the White House too, what's the ordinary person to do?

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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