WASHINGTON (May 22, 2006) — Supporters of the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act faced tough questions at a House subcommittee hearing the week before the measure was set to go to a vote before the same subcommittee.
Paul Fiore, director of government and business affairs for the Tire Industry Association (TIA), said he was puzzled by the hostile questioning and the “rather condescending attitude” of the congressional panel. He said he doubted whether the vote on the bill would now take place as scheduled.
“If they did have the markup, I'd be very surprised,” he said.
Vicki Robb, communications director for the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), said most of the legislators who showed up for the hearing opposed the bill from the start.
“They never thought we'd get this far, so it was like their last chance to take a crack at us,” Ms. Robb said, adding that she wasn't sure if the vote would go on.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of three original sponsors of the Right to Repair Act, was home sick May 17, the day of the hearing before the committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. This seemed to pave the way for a pervasively negative tone about the bill, which would establish criminal sanctions against auto makers that don't provide independent auto repairers with the same repair and diagnostic information they give their franchised dealers.
“This bill seems to be a magnificent cure for a problem that does not exist,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., a longtime supporter of the auto industry who opposes the legislation.
But even Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and one of 102 co-sponsors of the Right to Repair Act, told supporters of the legislation she was distressed at the lack of hard evidence that independent auto repairers and their customers really suffered because of lack of access to auto repair and diagnostic information.
Earlier, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras told subcommittee Chairman Clifford Stearns, R-Fla., that she had seen only anecdotal evidence that independent garages were having problems because auto makers wouldn't give them repair information and tools.
However, Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), said the aftermarket had shown FTC staff the hard evidence.
AAIA's surveys, Mr. Lowe said, show that 53 percent of independent repair shops have to send at least one car a month to an auto dealer because repair information is inaccessible. Seventy-four percent of technicians have reported problems because auto makers wouldn't make information available to them, he added.
The number of complaints filed with the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF)—the group formed to police the voluntary information agreement signed by the Automotive Service Association and major auto makers in September 2002—was a major topic at the hearing.
Different sources gave different figures for the number of repair shop inquiries the NASTF received in 2005. Rep. Dingell said 86; Michael Stanton, vice president of government and international affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said 57; and new NASTF Chairman Charles Gorman said 48. All these figures, however, were out of an estimated 500 million auto repairs in the U.S. that year.
Mr. Lowe, however, said those figures proved nothing. “The reason people don't go to the NASTF is because they don't have weeks or months to wait for an answer,” he said. “If you can't repair that vehicle now, you've lost it.”
Speaking after the hearing, Mr. Fiore—who did not testify—said the fixation on the number of NASTF complaints demonstrated a profound misconception about the way auto technicians work.
“They won't take the time to even learn how to file a complaint with the NASTF,” he said. “I know what a technician's life is like. They get paid by the piece, by the hour.”
Mr. Gorman said he was in the process of reorganizing the NASTF to make it more responsive to auto technicians.
“The current process is slow, and lacks incentive for auto makers to comply,” he said. “The reality is that the NASTF, although successful, is not as successful as it needs to be…. The goal is to create a permanent organization that can not only do a better job of processing complaints regarding missing information, but also to provide a means of enforcement.”
The organization is already making significant strides, according to Mr. Gorman. It has turned over day-to-day management to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which is providing a full-time staff person and part-time help, he said. It also is working on bylaws and a sustainable funding model.