Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

Lawmakers want heads to roll, and won't excuse Barra

Barra has agreed to return to the Senate and testify again.

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WASHINGTON -- Mary Barra survived back-to-back brushes with the U.S. Congress.

But judging from the rough reception she got on Wednesday from the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel, it was clear that this is just the start of General Motors’ reckoning on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers treated the CEO more roughly than their U.S. House counterparts did Tuesday. Led by subcommittee chair Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., they questioned how an executive with Barra’s background could have been unaware of a faulty switch that has now prompted GM to recall 2.6 million vehicles worldwide.

Said a piqued Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.: "You don't know anything about anything."

Here are four main takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing:

1. Barra will not get a personal pass.

McCaskill, a former county prosecutor and state auditor, turned up the heat almost immediately by reading Barra's resume, as if to point out that her roles at divisions of GM -- engineering, quality, product development -- are tied in the ignition switch flaw.

Barra, who took over as CEO on Jan. 15, has tried to position herself as a change agent, dedicated to fixing the company’s flawed practices. But in McCaskill’s eyes, she deserved no leeway for being new to the job.

“I think she’s sincere, but I was a little taken aback at the notion that her watch began in January,” McCaskill told reporters after the hearing. “This is someone who has been a part of GM for three decades and has risen to authority and power at the corporation -- that’s why she’s the CEO. I don’t think it’s appropriate to wash your hands completely of what happened last year, what happened the year before and what happened the year before that at the company.”

2. Lawmakers want to see heads roll

Several senators, from both sides of the aisle, expressed disbelief that no one has been fired at GM over the ignition switch defect.

McCaskill asked about Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer who authorized a redesign of the recalled switch, according to documents released by a House committee Tuesday. In an April 2013 deposition, DeGiorgio told a lawyer for a Georgia woman killed in a 2005 Cobalt that he didn’t approve changes to the switch in 2006.

"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why he still has his job," McCaskill said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said changing the design without changing the part number was equivalent to “criminal deception.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former state attorney general, told Barra that GM could face criminal liability.

As the investigations unfold, GM -- and the U.S. Justice Department -- will be under pressure from Congress to show that the people who allowed GM’s defective switch to go unfixed are paying a price.

Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, declined to confirm whether Justice Department investigators have opened a probe into GM.

But he said his office was involved in prosecuting Toyota over its response to complaints of unintended acceleration -- a case that hinged on Toyota’s decision to change a part without changing the part number.

“We obtained a tremendous amount of expertise in this area," Scovel said.

3. More hearings are coming.

Before leaving Wednesday, Barra agreed to return to the Senate and testify again.

Several committee members had voiced frustration at Barra’s unwillingness to answer many questions about the ignition switch problem. Barra would say it was too early, because the company is awaiting a report by investigator Anton Valukas.

“It is incredibly frustrating to me that you wouldn’t have a simple timeline of what happened,” McCaskill said in response.

Expect Barra to be summoned back to Capitol Hill once that report is submitted -- which Barra said should happen within 45 to 60 days. Barra told the committee that GM will share everything from that report pertaining to the safety of GM’s products, though it may withhold information “if there is an issue of competitiveness.”

McCaskill told reporters after the hearing that she would also consider summoning Valukas to testify, depending on what the final report reveals.

4. Expect any legislative changes to start in the Senate

If this safety lapse prompts Congress to change U.S. auto safety law, it seems likely that the Senate, not the House, will be the first mover.

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Blumenthal have already introduced a bill that would give the public access to “early warning reports” that automakers submit to regulators, among other changes.

They pressed Barra to support their bill. She declined.

“We'd like to review it in its entirely and provide input," Barra told Markey.

Boxer pushed for legislation making it illegal to rent cars or make them available as loaners if they are due for work under a recall campaign. She has introduced that bill for the past few congressional sessions without success.

Barra said she would need to read the language, but “conceptually, it makes sense.”

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

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