They won’t celebrate in public, but executives at the Big Three domestic automakers are hoping that Democratic control of the U.S. House and perhaps the Senate will bring a government that’s more responsive to their plight as they fight for business with Asian competitors.
Top U.S. auto executives have grown increasingly frustrated with the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress on energy policies, health care costs, currency manipulation by other countries and protection of intellectual property.
After months of trying, leaders of the Big Three are scheduled to meet Tuesday at the White House with President Bush, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Wednesday.
No one is expecting major changes with Democrats holding only a narrow majority in the House, but still, shifts could be coming.
“None of this is a slam-dunk for anyone, but I think our prospects on the issues ... are a lot better,” said Alan Reuther, legislative director for the United Auto Workers union, which has sought incentives for flexible-fuel vehicles and help for manufacturers on health care costs for retirees.
Industry-friendly lawmakers already are preparing to push legislation that will help General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group.
“I think there’s a greater recognition here that our manufacturers are not just competing with companies overseas. They’re competing against countries that support their manufacturing,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., in a conference call. “We’re going to have to be a much stronger partner with our auto companies and with our other manufacturers if we’re going to stem this loss of jobs.”
Democrats say nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since Bush took office as companies continue to move production to low-wage countries, driving up the trade deficit.
Levin predicted that Democrats in Congress will try to prod Bush into taking action with the World Trade Organization against countries that throw up barriers to imports of American goods.
American manufacturers say China is keeping its currency artificially low against the dollar to make Chinese goods cheaper in the U.S. and American-made products more expensive in China.
“I think corrective action ought to be taken, particularly on the currency manipulation,” said Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, whose district includes numerous manufacturers. “They must think we’re fat, dumb and happy the way we sit back and let them take advantage of it.”
Gillmor, who was re-elected Tuesday, said both Bush and former President Clinton have been too soft on enforcing trade agreements, especially with China.
Japanese automakers such as Toyota and Honda have increased their profile in Washington in recent years, bolstered by the creation of jobs at new plants in the South and Midwest. Any advantages given to the Big Three would likely need to benefit the entire industry.
“We’re going to be making our point that whatever is done should apply equally and equitably to all auto manufacturers,” said Mike Stanton, president and chief executive of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
The auto industry will have a strong ally in Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who will become chairman of the key House Energy and Commerce Committee in January. Dingell, who represents thousands of auto workers, has opposed increasing fuel economy standards because of concerns about potential job losses and negative economic consequences for automakers.
Dingell said Wednesday that fuel economy “is a long lead-time item” and would need to be considered in the context of its economic costs and the “ability of industry and market to absorb the costs.”
Dingell said the committee would look into the development of alternative fuels and vehicles and the use of diesel fuels in the marketplace.
“We want to reduce the dependence on foreign oil and we will do what we can to move forward on energy independence,” Dingell said.
The issue of making vehicles get more miles per gallon will be closely watched. The auto industry has resisted upgraded requirements and stressed the need for vehicles fueled by alternatives such as ethanol, diesel and long-range projects involving hydrogen.
“In recent years, attempts to increase fuel economy standards have been met with broad bipartisan opposition and we’re hopeful that that opposition continues,” said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Environmental groups have urged Bush to address funding for alternative energy sources and improved fuel economy standards. The administration reformed fuel economy rules for light trucks and has sought changes to the passenger car system, but the increases have been derided as minimal by critics.
“Energy policy and fuel economy standards for the past 20 years have been a bipartisan failure,” said David Friedman, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program. “The next year will tell us a lot about how serious people are.”