Congress docks the pay of top NHTSA regulators

WASHINGTON - Using the power of the purse to send a message to top automobile industry regulators, Congress is clipping $20,000 from their wallets because not enough Americans are buckling seat belts.

Lawmakers slipped the provision into the government's $60 billion fiscal 2002 transportation spending bill. It cuts $20,000 from executive bonuses for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The bill says the agency failed to meet "performance goals."

An aide to Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, confirmed the congressman added the provision to make a point.

Goals unmet

The former Clinton administration set goals of 85 percent seat belt use by 2000 and 90 percent by 2005. The usage rate has risen to about 73 percent, according to NHTSA's last survey in August.

There are 24 officials at NHTSA eligible for the bonus program, a spokesman said. So the cut, in theory, could cost each one more than $800. Salaries range up to $125,000. But agency bosses have discretion and could take all of the cut from one individual if they wanted.

"If that isn't ridiculous nonsense, I don't know what is," said Carol Bonosaro. She is president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents the 6,000 officials throughout the government eligible for bonuses of 5 percent to 20 percent. Senior executives are the highest ranking career employees, just below the president's political appointees at each agency.

Settling scores

Appropriations laws are supposed to merely divvy up federal taxpayer dollars. But lawmakers routinely use them to alter federal programs, settle scores with foes, send messages to bureaucrats - as they did with the bonus money - and sometimes make policy.

Outside of the bonus cut, Congress was fairly generous with NHTSA this year. The agency is to get $423 million in fiscal 2002, up $20 million from last year. Some of the increase is for the wave of new rules the agency is writing in the wake of the Firestone tire disasters.

There is a final irony to this story of how Washington works. The bill penalizing NHTSA for missing its performance goals was, according to Congress' own laws, supposed to be enacted by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. The House approved it Nov. 30; the Senate did so Dec. 4. As of Thursday, Dec. 13, President Bush had not signed it into law.

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