Video: White House mulls automaker aid

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updated 12/12/2008 8:29:20 AM ET 2008-12-12T13:29:20
Analysis

American automakers could learn a great deal from their Japanese competitors, starting with the value of a ritualized public apology for failure.

Aid to the beleaguered but often benighted American auto industry might be easier to swallow if the companies' senior executives and their counterparts in the United Auto Workers were required to stand on the Capitol steps and apologize for managing into the ground an industry that once symbolized America's industrial might. It would be even more appropriate if they were joined by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and all of the industry's other putative congressional defenders, who helped run it into the ditch by relentlessly but myopically blocking mandated improvements in fuel economy that might have compelled Detroit decades ago to shift its focus from gas-guzzling behemoths to the attractive high-mileage passenger cars now synonymous with Toyota and Honda.

Yoichi Kato, the Washington bureau chief for Asahi Shimbun, Japan's most prominent newspaper, says that in an analogous situation in Japan the responsible parties might publicly declare: Gomeiwaku wo okakeshita kotowo owabishimasu. Roughly, that translates as, "I apologize for all the troubles that we caused."

When Levin, Dingell, or Detroit's other defenders make their case for billions of taxpayer dollars to keep their foundering charges afloat, maybe they could start with that mea culpa.

They certainly have plenty to apologize for. It's difficult to overstate how shortsighted the industry, the union, and their political allies have been in resisting policies that might have avoided today's crisis.

Most people have probably forgotten that as far back as 1990 a clear majority of senators backed legislation that would have required auto manufacturers to raise their fleet-wide fuel economy to nearly 40 miles per gallon by 2001 (up from 27.5 mpg for cars). In September 1990, 57 senators voted to impose that higher standard. But the measure could not overcome a filibuster led by Michigan's senators. Even if the Senate had passed that bill, it might not have mattered, because Dingell, positioned like the cork in a bottle as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, refused even to consider fuel-efficiency legislation.

Video: What now for Big Three automakers? The same iron triangle of the companies, the union, and their auto-state political allies succeeded in blocking any increase in mileage standards under President Clinton, who didn't resist very much when the Republican Congress passed legislation barring him from raising the requirements through regulation. The wall held through President Bush's first term, too. Only after soaring gasoline prices made absolute opposition politically untenable in 2007 did Congress approve and Bush sign a requirement that the automakers reach a fleet-wide average of 35 mpg by 2020. That's 5 miles per gallon less and nearly 20 years later than the 1990 bill would have mandated.

Road to ruinDoes anyone doubt that Detroit would be in a stronger position today if Washington had forced it onto a path toward building more high-mileage cars two decades ago? Instead, the industry venerated the bigger-is-better illusion that deepened its dependence on trucks and sport-utility vehicles -- and heightened America's reliance on foreign oil.

The companies rejected even the most creative incentives to smooth the transition. When Sen. Barack Obama first arrived in Washington, he offered the manufacturers an ingenious deal: Washington would assume some of their "legacy" costs for retirees if they agreed to invest the savings in hybrids. Once more, the industry said no.

It would be not only tragic but also self-defeating to let this moment pass without irrevocably committing Detroit to a high-mileage future. Opposition from Bush and congressional Republicans ensures that any bailout package approved now will not include meaningful mileage commitments, such as compelling the industry to drop its lawsuit against California legislation that would effectively require it to improve fuel efficiency to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But, assuming that some stabilization plan passes, President Obama and Congress will have another chance when the manufacturers present their restructuring plans in March.

In their latest submissions to Congress, the companies promised big mileage improvements. As veteran environmental lobbyist Dan Becker notes, any long-term financing deal should "lock them in" to those commitments at a minimum, "for their self-interest and ours." After decades of dead ends, the only sensible posture toward the auto industry and its political enablers is the one Ronald Reagan might have recommended: Trust but verify.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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