WASHINGTON—At the beginning of 2006, political pundits said it would take a miracle for Democrats to win the six Senate and 15 House seats they needed in the midterm elections to win back Congress.
Come November, that miracle did indeed happen.
Besides preparing to face a 110th Congress that will be vastly different in its attitude from the 109th, the tire industry saw little action on most of the legislation it supported in 2006.
In November, incoming Tire Industry Association (TIA) President Paul Hyatt declared passage of the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act his association's No. 1 issue. Mr. Hyatt's statement could be taken as an act of defiance, considering the bill's waning support in the U.S. House of Representatives throughout the year.
The Right to Repair Act did manage a razor-thin, 14-13 passage in May in the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee and at its peak had more than 100 co-sponsors. By year-end, though, several of those co-sponsors quietly removed their names from the legislation.
The bill calls for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to oversee the operations of the bill, including criminal penalties for auto makers that don't make all pertinent repair and diagnostic information available to independent auto technicians. However, FTC Chairwoman Deborah Pratt Majoras told the subcommittee the agency doesn't have the statutory authority to do such a thing.
Ms. Majoras also said she had seen only anecdotal evidence backing the claims of the automotive aftermarket that independent garages were being harmed by lack of access to repair information.
Meanwhile, groups such as the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) claimed that the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF)—the group formed to oversee the 2002 agreement between the ASA and the auto makers for the establishment of repair information Web sites—was doing its job well.
Pro-NASTF witnesses said the organization received only 48 to 86 complaints throughout 2005, compared with an estimated 500 million auto repairs nationwide. This, they claimed, showed the Web sites provided the information independent repairers needed.
However, the bulk of the aftermarket claimed the FTC and others were ignoring the plain evidence of economic harm to independent garages, and that the NASTF appeal process is simply too time-consuming for the average technician to bother with. The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) released a survey showing that independent auto repair shop owners were losing more than $5.8 billion in business annually because they couldn't access the same repair information that auto dealers' garages receive as a matter of course.
The bill must now start over in the 110th Congress. With Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., an ardent opponent of the Right to Repair Act, as the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the bill's supporters fear they will have to seek assurances of repair information parity elsewhere.
One hopeful spot for them is New Jersey, where a committee within the state assembly has passed a bill levying penalties of $10,000 to $20,000 for each time an auto maker fails to provide an independent technician or do-it-yourselfer with repair information.
Another bill in Congress to establish a national tire fuel efficiency consumer education program passed the House's full Energy and Commerce Committee June 20, but failed to reach the House floor before adjournment.
This legislation received a split review from the aftermarket. The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), the main supporter of the bill, said it would be a workable alternative to more sweeping tire fuel efficiency legislation introduced in the House and Senate. TIA, despite a few reservations, also decided to back the bill. But the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) insisted such legislation would impose substantial burdens and costs on the industry while potentially downgrading tire characteristics such as stopping distance, cornering ability and tread life.
Tire fuel efficiency legislation similar to that passed in California in 2004 surfaced in the Connecticut legislature early in 2006 over the opposition of the RMA, TIA and SEMA. The bill did not advance.
TIA and other small business associations were disappointed in June when the Senate failed by just three votes to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote on a permanent repeal of the estate tax.
Current law allows a gradual reduction in the estate tax annually until a total repeal is reached in 2010. In 2011, however, the rate rises again to up to 55 percent on estates valued at more than $1 million.
Repealing the so-called “death tax,” TIA and other small business associations said, is the only way to ensure that family-owned businesses aren't broken up at the founder's death to pay taxes. Consumer groups such as Public Citizen, however, insisted that very few family businesses would ever owe anything in estate taxes and that repeal would cost the U.S. Treasury some $1 trillion over 10 years—at a time it could ill afford to do so.
The Senate also failed in May to invoke cloture on a bill to establish Small Business Health Plans (SBHPs), also known as Association Health Plans. SBHPs would allow small business associations to negotiate across state lines to obtain low-cost health insurance plans for their members.
The National Federation of Independent Business obtained nearly 450,000 signatures on a petition urging Congress to pass SBHP legislation. Consumer groups, however, argued that the bill would pre-empt in 26 states insurance rules mandating mammograms, pediatrics, diabetes care and other crucial benefits in all health insurance policies.
Senate opponents of an asbestos litigation settlement bill also managed to block a vote on the legislation, despite strong bipartisan support. The bill would have established a $140 billion trust fund to settle thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits, protecting brake manufacturers and other companies from being forced to declare bankruptcy in order to pay claims. The Senate Budget Committee, however, issued an analysis saying the fund would be at least $150 billion short, leaving taxpayers to pay the coverage.
One legislative success the auto aftermarket could claim in 2006 was the March passage of an anti-counterfeiting bill. The legislation extended existing anti-counterfeiting laws to require the destruction of all machinery and equipment used to make counterfeit goods and also to make illegal the sale of patches, labels or medallions bearing counterfeit trademarks.
Passage of the bill was hailed by groups such as the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. That trade group quoted figures from the FBI that product counterfeiting costs the U.S. auto parts industry alone some $12 billion annually.