CAFE unity wins, but wounds linger

WASHINGTON - On the one hand, automobile industry executives and lobbyists were more united than ever on an issue before Congress. Big 3 and overseas-based automakers both opposed raising fuel economy standards for trucks.

On the other hand, Big 3 allies argued vigorously that higher fuel economy standards for light trucks would cause U.S.-based automakers to lose more sales and jobs to overseas-based companies.

The tactics proved effective. A critical House of Representatives' vote against requiring light trucks to meet the same fuel-use standards as cars was larger than expected, a comfortable 269-160 margin. It happened Aug. 1.

The intense but contradictory lobbying showed that the industry and its allies will do almost anything to win on the crucial issue of corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE.

But it also showed that beneath the unprecedented industry unity are old wounds that are not healed entirely and that could break open again. The unity no doubt will be tested again when the Senate debates CAFE this fall.

'Regrettably many members of the House used bogus arguments to defeat a bad amendment,' said Tim MacCarthy, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, representing import-brand carmakers in the United States.

'I had hoped we had finally put that kind of inflammatory rhetoric behind us, and obviously we have not,' said MacCarthy, noting that overseas-based companies have invested billions in the United States and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Alan Reuther, legislative director of the UAW, said he doesn't believe anyone should take offense at a factual argument: Companies that sell more large cars and large trucks would be hurt more by higher CAFE.

The argument had at least tacit support from some of the Big 3. Both General Motors and DaimlerChrysler warned of plant closings, and GM repeatedly made the case that 'full-line manufacturers' would be hurt more by higher CAFE.

At the same time, U.S.-based companies and overseas-based companies were working together through their joint trade association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and the top executives of the six largest companies in the alliance signed joint letters to lawmakers about CAFE.

'This is really historic,' said Janet Mullins Grissom, Ford Motor Co.'s vice president for Washington affairs. She said overseas-based companies 'are not passively on the same page (with the Big 3). They are actively on the same page.'

She said industry unity will be even more important in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where some members are prepared to argue that, if Japanese companies can build fuel-efficient vehicles, why can't Americans?

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