The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

In Congress, a changing of the guard

COMMENTARY
Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Dingell has represented his Dearborn, Mich., district in Congress since the days when a '55 Chevy was a showroom car, not a collector's item.

He was there in Congress when the U.S. auto industry grappled with safety scares, the Ralph Nader-led consumer movement, air pollution and oil crises. He was there when a Detroit-dominated industry discovered it had global rivals and all the way through its descent into bankruptcy and now its rebirth.

But after more than a half century of service, the 87-year-old Democrat is ready to go. And that's the clearest sign yet that the U.S. auto industry must prepare for a changing of the guard in Congress (even if Dingell's wife, Debbie, ends up succeeding him).

"I'm not going to be carried out feet first," John Dingell told The Detroit News last week in announcing he will not seek re-election. "I don't want people to say I stayed too long."

Along with Dingell, this year's turnover in Congress will claim a few other longtime legislators who have played key roles in the auto industry's agenda. Among them is Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a staunch Detroit 3 and UAW ally who remembered his time at a Ford plant fondly enough that for decades, he carried a faded 1953 union card in his wallet.

Gone, too, will be Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the Standard Oil scion who studied in Tokyo as a young man and became Congress' resident expert on the Japanese auto industry. You could see that passion in Rockefeller's work as a senator, whether he was persuading Toyota to open its engine plant in West Virginia or seeking greater U.S. government expertise on electronic defects in the wake of Toyota's sudden acceleration crisis.

Also headed out is Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the liberal stalwart whose dogged advocacy for tough regulation helped drive the tailpipe emissions and fuel economy standards that have become a fact of life. He and the industry didn't always agree, but he was consistent in his positions, and he knew how to cut a deal.

It might seem like the industry has already cut all the deals it needs. Laws on auto safety and labor are well understood; the Obama administration and the industry have made peace on fuel economy. With the executive branch calling the shots, a cynic might say, who cares about Congress?

But the realities can change more quickly than anyone expects. Sometime soon, self-driving cars could force a rethink of how roadways operate. As cars become as connected as computers, privacy and security concerns could come to the forefront. More evidence of climate change could provoke a swift reaction, even more aggressive than the new fuel economy standards or what has been done in Europe.

Rep. John Dingell and others who have had key industry roles are leaving Congress.

When the changes begin to happen, knowing the players in Congress will be as important as ever. So who will be the ones who open their doors to the auto business?

Here are four lawmakers who could be key agenda setters in the years ahead:

1. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.: Upton succeeded Waxman as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the GOP took the House in 2010. Although he has recently taken more anti-government stances in response to Tea Party pressure, Upton has a history as a pragmatic problem-solver. He was the lead sponsor of the TREAD Act, the 2000 bill that overhauled auto recall procedures in the wake of the Ford-Firestone tire crisis. Hailing from Michigan, Upton knows the industry well, and because he is the leader of the committee with jurisdiction over auto safety and the environment, his stamp of approval can make or break a piece of legislation.

2. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.: Wyden's home state has hardly any auto industry presence. But from his perch as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he has substantial influence over international trade, one of the areas in which the industry is most active in lobbying. He has also been a leading congressional watchdog on data privacy and cybersecurity -- two issues the industry must confront head-on as cars become connected and lawmakers ask questions about how much data the industry is storing about drivers.

3. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich.: Peters, who is just in his second term, has been a vocal supporter of Detroit 3 causes, going back to the bailout that unfolded in the months after he took office. Recently that has meant loudly accusing Japan of currency manipulation to favor its automakers. He is in a dead heat with Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, for Levin's Senate seat. But if he prevails, he seems likely to become a key industry ally.

4. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.: Shuster is a former car dealer who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He has shown great interest in vehicle technology, such as autonomous cars. "It's the future of transportation and it's here," he told Politico last year after a test drive in a modified Cadillac SRX that was made autonomous by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The legislative tumult over safety, fuel economy and clean air is over. But for the industry, the hard work in Congress must begin now. Because when today's calm gives way to the next storm, the auto industry will need more John Dingells and Henry Waxmans -- navigators it can trust.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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