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Senators Blew It, Passed Up Historic Opportunity to Improve Safety, Environment and Economy

March 13, 2002

Senators Blew It, Passed Up Historic Opportunity to Improve Safety, Environment and Economy

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Today, United States senators had a historic opportunity to do something they rarely do these days: improve public safety, help the environment and better our economy — all in a single vote. They blew it.

They were debating whether to increase fuel economy standards, which haven?t been boosted for 17 years, during which we?ve seen an explosion of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs) on our highways, lowering our overall fuel economy. The proposal on the floor — sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — was a bill to increase fuel economy standards to 36 miles per gallon by 2016 and meet important safety standards. That?s 14 full years for automakers to comply — eminently reasonable, given advances in technology over the past two decades. Automakers, of course, staunchly resisted the measure, as they do all regulatory changes (remember how they kicked and screamed over mandatory seat belts and air bags).

The senators faced two choices. The one offered by Kerry, Hollings and McCain would make our air cleaner, put safer vehicles on the road and start weaning America from its dependence on foreign oil. The second option, authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), would continue allowing pollution-belching vehicles to keep crowding our roads and would kill sorely needed safety rules, such as making vehicle roofs stronger to save people from injury and death in rollover crashes. This second option would continue fostering the foolhardy, gas-guzzling ways that are making us more vulnerable every day to events in the political tinderbox that is the Middle East.

It should have been a clear choice. Unfortunately, on the way to the Senate floor, many senators? heads became clouded by money and myths. The money came from the auto industry and unions that have long given millions to lawmakers just for this purpose — to call in chits when such votes come up. The myths came from an unprecedented industry-sponsored advertising blitz full of lies and distortions.

Hearing only the sound of jingling cash from the industry and ignoring the wishes of the 88 percent of Americans who favor better fuel economy, senators chose to approve the Levin-Bond amendment. This measure is a setup, and the target of this scheme is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The measure, which puts the cash-strapped agency in an impossible position, calls for NHTSA to propose a fuel economy standard within 18 months. But it sets no specific mile-per-gallon limit and slashes funding for the rule to $2 million per year from the $25 million proposed by Kerry and Hollings. Levin?s measure also includes a host of criteria NHTSA?s fuel rule must meet, laying the groundwork for future court challenges that could delay the rule for years. By giving NHTSA too little time and money to do its job, and by handing the auto industry a set of gleaming knives with which to cut NHTSA to shreds, Levin is ensuring there will be no increase in fuel economy standards any time soon.

Fortunately, it?s not too late for senators to see the light and change this phenomenally shortsighted vote. The measure approved Wednesday is part of a larger energy bill that deserves to be killed because it does absolutely nothing for the public and everything for big industry. It gives the oil industry tax breaks, helps the nuclear industry build more plants without having to worry about paying for nuclear accidents, and repeals the Public Utility Holding Company Act, an important consumer protection law that places ownership restrictions on giant electricity companies and restricts the ability of companies to make investments that divert resources away from their primary responsibility: serving electricity customers.

Before senators cast their final vote, we?d like to address two falsehoods that are being promoted by the auto industry and some in Congress despite the clear facts:

Myth: Raising fuel economy standards will force automakers to make lighter — and therefore less safe — vehicles.

Fact: Since most fuel economy improvements come from technology, and not weight changes, this would not happen. In fact, we would likely end up with a safer fleet of vehicles on the roads. Also, automakers would reduce the weights only of their heaviest vehicles, such as SUVs. That means fewer deadly crashes between hulking vehicles, such as the Ford Excursion, and smaller ones, such as the Honda Civic. Such crashes are now so devastating precisely because of disparities in design and weight between the vehicles.

Myth: Raising fuel economy standards will mean the end of SUVs.

Fact: Technology exists today to build SUVs that are far more fuel efficient, and some manufacturers are doing it. For instance, the Ford Escape is an SUV powered by a hybrid engine that gets 40 mpg without sacrificing power or comfort.

It?s unconscionable that the U.S. Senate is willing to sacrifice this country?s future solely to retain the support of its wealthy backers. And it?s utterly unbelievable that senators subsequently voted to freeze fuel standards for pickup trucks at the low 20.7 mpg. Those who voted for the Levin-Bond amendment should be ashamed. We urge them to think more clearly when they vote on the energy bill and ensure that the whole disastrous piece of legislation never becomes law.