WASHINGTON (March 25, 2014) — U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican leading U.S. hearings into General Motors Co.'s recall of 1.6 million cars, has some of the closest ties to the automobile industry of any member of Congress.
Mr. Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that's no reason for anyone to question his ability to grill a powerful home-state employer, and he's got the track record to prove it. He led the probe in 2000 over highway deaths linked to Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer SUV. That inquiry took on added relevance when Mr. Upton said he learned his daughter's Girl Scout troop leader drove her to camp in a car with the defective tires.
“It struck home,” he said in a telephone interview.
Afterward, he drafted and helped pass bipartisan legislation creating an early warning system to boost communication between the automobile industry and federal safety regulators.
While his April 1 hearing into this year's GM recall is designed to extract answers from CEO Mary Barra and U.S. regulators, it may also raise questions about the effectiveness of the law that resulted from the Ford-Firestone crisis. The hearing also will test Upton's ability to strike a balance between the needs of consumers and those of a company that employs 44,500 people in his home state.
“Upton has to know that people are going to be looking at him and saying, ‘He's just going to be an industry guy,'” said Joan Claybrook, a board member of consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen who ran the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981. “I hope he steps outside of that, because there are some real deficiencies here.”
The committee's probe will examine the conduct of both GM and NHTSA, the auto industry's main safety regulator, regarding an ignition-switch defect linked to 12 deaths in crashes. It revolves around the response to reported incidents involving stalls, airbags and ignition switches since 2003 in cars including the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.
Mr. Upton, 60, was the lead House author of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The 2000 law boosted communication between car makers and the government and increased NHTSA's ability to collect data, with auto makers required to report more potential threats like defect claims or lawsuits, and recalls in other nations.