Despite tougher laws being enacted in 2000 and 2010 to encourage
automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) to aggressively root out safety concerns, it took GM more
than a decade to acknowledge publicly that it had a potentially
Documents that GM and NHTSA turned over to the House of
Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee have provided new
insights into GM's practices.
They include decisions to install ignition switches in Chevrolet
Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models that did not meet all of the
company's own specifications.
Even worse, some in Congress are beginning to wonder whether more
people died in cars outfitted with faulty switches, beyond the 13 GM
identified, as they review documents pointing to a redesigned
replacement part that also could be substandard.
The committee, as well as a Senate panel on Wednesday, is expected
to begin demanding answers from GM on whether decisions like that
directly contributed to crashes.
So far, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars to replace ignition
switches that could unexpectedly stall out engines, prevent airbags
from deploying and make power brakes and power steering inoperable.
"Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they take us
as we work to pinpoint where the system failed," House Energy and
Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said
On the receiving end of questions by Upton and other members of the
panel's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will be GM Chief
Executive Officer Mary Barra, who has repeatedly apologized for her
Barra, who became CEO in January, says in prepared testimony
released by the committee that she "cannot tell you why it took
years for a safety defect to be announced."
Barra promised to get to the root of the problem.
The congressional committee might not want to patiently wait,
however, and it could call lower-level GM employees to testify at
later hearings or even former CEOs.
NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman also will be on the hot
seat on Tuesday, as many lawmakers are expected to ask why the
regulatory agency was not more aggressive in identifying the problem
and forcing GM to act.
For Barra and GM the stakes are high.
The Detroit automaker survived a 2009 bankruptcy reorganization and
a subsequent government takeover. The U.S. Treasury exited the last
of its taxpayer stake in the company last fall.
With the U.S. economy climbing out of a deep economic recession and
new success with a product line that included highly profitable
trucks, GM started the year optimistic.
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Instead, the recalls and revelations that GM hid the problem for
years, even after being confronted by devastated families who lost
relatives in car crashes, have taken the sheen off of GM.
company and some of its employees are hung up in House and Senate
investigations, a U.S. Justice Department criminal probe and several
lawsuits. Meanwhile, its legal costs are escalating and nobody is
sure what further steps GM might have to take to protect consumers
from vehicles it sold as long as a decade ago.
All of this could have an impact on GM's bottom line in coming
Past congressional investigations of Toyota Motor Corp in 2010 and
Ford Motor Co and Firestone tire-maker 10 years earlier have
produced riveting testimony from victims and the GM probe may be no
John Kimberly, a business consultant and a professor at the Wharton
School of the University of Pennsylvania, said Barra should learn
from the mistakes other companies have made in the midst of
high-profile congressional probes.
He pointed to BP, which was criticized for minimizing the damage
caused by its massive, 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during
testimony to Congress.
Kimberley added that it would be a "huge mistake" for Barra to hide
behind legal protections by drawing a distinction between GM pre-
and post-bankruptcy and blame the handling of the recall on the
Congressional investigations often boil down to a version of one
central question — a question made famous by former Republican
Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.
"What did the president know and when did he know it," Baker said of
then-President Richard Nixon during a defining moment in the
Watergate hearings of 1973-74.
That is the question congressional investigators are asking of GM
and NHTSA officials. It may take months to find the answer.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards;
editing by Karey Van Hall
and Lisa Shumaker)
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