Did political considerations within the federal government delay a recall of defective GM ignition switches? This issue has been percolating for a few weeks, when the automaker finally initiated a recall of over a million vehicles after years of complaints and more than a dozen deaths. The defect had been known to GM since at least 2004 — and to the NHTSA since 2007. Now a wide recall is in effect, but criminal investigators have begun probes into the delay and the deaths, according to this CNN report from earlier today:
General Motors Co. faced new pressure from a powerful member of Congress to explain why it took nearly a decade to recall 1.6 million vehicles for faulty ignitions linked to 13 deaths, even as the auto maker hired a high-profile lawyer to lead its internal investigation and stepped up warnings to customers.
Late Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said it would launch an investigation into the slow recall and hold hearings. …
On Monday, GM launched a website to provide customers with information about the recall, warning owners of the affected vehicles to remove extra weight off their car ignition keys. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given the auto maker until April 3 to answer 107 questions about its handling of the problem.
GM employees knew about the defect as early as 2004. The company has released a chronology sketching out in broad terms how the faulty switch was discovered and how the issue bounced around within its engineering division. The company’s disclosures to date don’t reveal who was responsible for the timing of the recall.
The NHTSA has its own questions to answer:
Meanwhile, the NHTSA hasn’t said why it didn’t take action after one of its own officials pointed out the potential problem during a March 2007 meeting. NHTSA officials have declined to comment on the meeting or provide any documentation about it.
Small wonder that Congress wants its own probe. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) chairs that committee, and he wants to look at both GM and NHTSA for its failures.
Liz Peek, my colleague at The Fiscal Times, wonders whether politics played a role in keeping this quiet in the first place:
By 2011 there had been 204 complaints lodged. In 2010 then-Congressman Barney Frank inquired on behalf of a constituent about the multiple accidents apparently brought on by the random deceleration issue. He was told by NHTSA that it had “insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation.” By that time, there had been several fatalities related to Cobalts’ stalling. Still, NHTSA did nothing.
At the same time, after the Obama administration had orchestrated a government takeover of General Motors, NHTSA hit Toyota with its largest-ever fine and demanded a recall of some 9 million cars and trucks. Over several years, NHTSA had received more than 3,000 reports of sudden acceleration in Toyotas; there had been some 75 fatal crashes. Though the incidents of problems continued to mount, it was not clear at the time of the recall what exactly accounted for the mishaps. The Wall Street Journalannounced that a report attributing most of the accidents to driver error had been “temporarily blocked” by safety officials, acting under the direction of Secretary of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. …
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, evidence of problems in various GM cars – and especially the Chevy Cobalts — continued to mount. To date, the auto maker has reported 13 deaths related to sudden deceleration in various GM models. While the government is now questioning why the Detroit firm delayed initiating a recall of the troubled vehicles, one can also challenge NHTSA’s hands-off attitude.
According to The Times, there were only 260 complaints specifically mentioning stalling, but almost 8,000 reports of problems that could be tied to the same defect – plenty of complaints to alert safety watchdogs. In all, the vehicles recalled have been involved in 78 deaths and 1,581 injuries.
If so, though, the sequence of events suggest that any protectionism would have started in the Bush administration, which was in office for almost two years after NHTSA’s first recorded acquaintance with the problem. In those two years, GM nearly collapsed and Chrysler all but did during the financial crisis of 2008. Perhaps both administrations felt it best to tread carefully to keep from shuttering GM, if there was any political machinations going on at all. Certainly, though, the NHTSA will have to explain why it got so tough with Toyota at the same time people were dying from GM defects that they were doing their best to ignore.
The problem is that, these days, we can believe all too well that the institutions of regulatory control can be exploited for political gain:
Unhappily, after the IRS targeting of right-wing groups, the manipulation of jobs numbers by census workers, the misleading accounts of the Benghazi tragedy and the deceptive marketing of Obamacare, we have lost trust in President Obama’s White House. Anything seems possible.
That is, as always, a great argument for limited government in the first place. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and trust is the first casualty.