WASHINGTON (Sept. 4, 2000)—Both the House and Senate insist they´re serious about passing legislation before the October recess to strengthen the federal government´s ability to respond to tire and auto safety defects.
But passage of a final bill before Congress´ current adjournment date of Oct. 13 seems dicey, now that two senators have placed holds on the Senate version sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The House still is working on its safety legislation, with the full House Commerce Committee scheduled to vote on its bill as this issue Oct. 5. However, the legislation may have to go to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration before reaching the House floor, a move consumer advocates condemn as a delaying tactic.
The best bet for auto recall reform this session seems to be the fiscal year 2001 appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation, which was approved Oct. 3 in a House-Senate conference committee with a provision requiring tire, auto and parts makers to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of foreign recalls.
Mr. McCain´s bill, which passed the Senate Commerce Committee Sept. 20, was scheduled for Senate floor consideration Sept. 28, but pulled at the last minute after the holds were placed on it.
Under Senate rules, a senator may place a hold on legislation scheduled for floor action for any reason, and his or her identity remains confidential. A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain´s office said she did not know the identity of the senators who placed a hold on the bill, or the reasons behind the holds.
Both the Senate and House bills—which include stringent criminal penalties for company officials who deliberately withhold information about product defects and a whopping increase in civil penalties—have drawn fierce criticism from auto and general industry lobbyists, who are fighting to have the bills either killed or watered down.
The comments of R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are typical. In a Sept. 27 letter to Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Mr. Josten unsuccessfully urged Mr. Bliley to put off the subcommittee vote scheduled that day.
"It is premature to rush into a markup on legislation that was literally drafted in the dead of night..., particularly if that legislation contains substantial criminal penalties," Mr. Josten wrote. "The risks are simply too great that innocent people will become potentially criminally liable because of mistakes or omissions made in middle-of-the-night drafting."
On the other hand, consumer activists say the House and Senate bills don´t go far enough. For example, they feel there should be no cap on civil penalties for companies that knowingly sell defective tires or vehicles, though they agree the increase in maximum penalties in both bills—to $15 million from $925,000—is a step in the right direction.
One group of watchdog organizations—including Common Cause, Consumers Union, Public Campaign, and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety—joined together at an Oct. 2 press conference to call not only for passage of safety legislation, but also for campaign finance reform, saying the Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT recall underscores the need for both.
The automotive industry, the associations said, has contributed more than $55 million to federal candidates and political parties since 1990, while since 1980 NHTSA´s budget has fallen 36 percent.
Large campaign contributions give tire and auto lobbyists disproportionate clout in framing auto safety legislation, said to Rosemary Shahan of CARS. The current House and Senate bills are "under assault by corporate criminal interests that want to get away with murder," Ms. Shahan said.
As insurance against the reform bills dying with the 106th Congress, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., added a provision to the DOT appropriations bill that auto and equipment manufacturers must inform NHTSA "of information of and actions taken to remedy equipment defects that affect the safety of vehicles sold in foreign nations that are also sold in the United States."
In a press release, Mr. Shelby specifically cited Ford Motor Co.´s "owner notification programs" to replace Firestone tires on Ford vehicles in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other countries. "Ford would have been required to notify NHTSA of these campaigns if they had occurred in the United States," the release stated.