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Auto Industry Used Trunkloads of Cash to Weaken

Oct. 31, 2000

Auto Industry Used Trunkloads of Cash to Weaken
Auto Safety Legislation

In the Wake of the Ford/Firestone Fiasco, the Auto Industry Used Its Clout in Congress to Thwart Consumer-Friendly Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tens of millions of dollars showered on lawmakers by the auto industry in recent years enabled the industry last month to thwart consumer-friendly auto safety legislation and successfully push through Congress a far weaker measure that is potentially harmful to consumers, a Public Citizen investigation has found.

In the newly released report, “Auto Safety Legislation Rolled by Special Interests,” Public Citizen concludes that the auto industry’s success in persuading Congress to pass a measure that keeps key safety data secret from the public and provides no new criminal penalties demonstrates the influence-peddling that controls our political system. It is what a frustrated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) referred to on the Senate floor when he stated that “the fix is in by the special interests.” The report analyzed Federal Election Commission data from the Center for Responsive Politics and lobby disclosure reports filed with Congress.

“This new law is a face-saving bill for lawmakers, who wanted some kind of legislation to boast about to voters back home, and not a real life-saving bill for the public,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said. “It is a sad testament to the need for campaign finance reform that the powers of persuasion marshaled by the families victimized by Ford and Firestone who came to Washington to lobby lawmakers could not match the influence of the auto industry and its allies.”

The auto industry drew on its special-interest clout to scuttle a good Senate bill and promote a bad House version, Public Citizen s report shows. Auto industry interests gained that clout because they have spent huge sums to influence lawmakers — particularly Republicans who run Congress. The study found that:

The auto industry has contributed $37.8 million to lawmakers since 1995, with 77 percent going to Republicans;

The top 15 auto industry contributors have given $4 million in soft money to political parties since 1995, with 90 percent going to Republicans;

The top 15 auto industry hard money contributors (PACs and individuals) have given $13.9 million since 1995, 74 percent of which went to Republican candidates and committees;

Leading companies and groups in the auto industry have spent more than $112.6 million to lobby Congress and the Clinton administration from 1997 through June 2000;

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) received the second-highest amount of auto industry contributions in the House, and, as the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over the bill, played a leading role in developing the weaker House bill;

Rep. W.J. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), while not among the top 30 recipients of industry money in the House, was the manager of the House bill and has received $35,750 from the auto industry since 1995;

The auto industry contributed to highly visible party activities such as election-year political conventions. For instance, General Motors supplied vehicles and other donations worth more than $1 million to the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer. DaimlerChrysler contributed $250,000 to each convention, while both GM and DaimlerChrysler sponsored lavish parties at both conventions, complete with a performance in Philadelphia by the Motown group the Temptations;

While the House Republican leadership, which includes such major recipients of industry money as majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Minority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas), initially opposed the development of any auto safety legislation, their opposition evaporated when it became apparent that the stronger Senate bill was stalled and the House bill was acceptable to industry;

The auto industry holds such sway in Congress that some senators who supported the stronger McCain bill early in the process later followed the Republican leadership s cues and worked against the bill when it was pending on the Senate floor.

The idea behind the legislation, which was introduced in the wake of the Ford/Firestone safety defect coverup, was to give more enforcement authority to federal auto safety regulators and inform consumers of safety defects. The Senate measure contained strong consumer protection provisions, while the House version — which passed both houses and awaits the president s signature — does not. McCain attempted numerous times to bring the Senate bill to the floor but was blocked by senators who anonymously placed holds on it, preventing it from coming to a vote. In an end-of-the-session rush, senators instead took up and passed the weaker House bill — just 18 hours after its 12:30 a.m. passage by the House.

The pending law is potentially harmful because it contains a secrecy provision that authorizes federal regulators to withhold early information about safety defects from the public. It also repeals a recently enacted measure that imposed a duty on manufacturers to analyze their own information to learn whether a defect poses a safety hazard. Further, the new law calls for prosecutors to grant immunity to anyone who intentionally lies to the government about defects if they later recant. In addition, auto dealers successfully lobbied Congress to remove from the measure any obligation to inform used car buyers of dangerous defects or to inform buyers of a vehicle s tendency to roll over.