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

Three takeaways from Barra's return to Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON -- General Motors’ ignition switch defect has done the impossible: It has unified a bitterly split Congress in a desire for closure.

It’s not yet clear how lawmakers will get that closure. But some signs of their priorities were on clear display Wednesday when GM CEO Mary Barra returned to Capitol Hill to testify before a U.S. House subcommittee.

Lawmakers have three big questions: How did this tragedy happen? How do we compensate the victims? And how do we stop it from happening again? Here’s where they’re headed next in the search for answers:

Beyond the Valukas report

The first time Barra testified, in early April, lawmakers were livid about her deference to the pending report from GM’s hand-picked investigator, Anton Valukas. This time, they had access to both Valukas and his 325-page report, and they seemed to accept it as a credible account of what happened.

But during questioning, they quickly zeroed in on its limitations. Valukas acknowledged that he wasn’t able to interview employees of Delphi, which supplied the faulty switch. Trial lawyers did not respond to his inquiries. His assignment didn’t extend to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also had hints the switch was flawed.

So in the waning minutes of the hearing, as the room emptied out, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., spoke frankly with Valukas about Congress’ next steps.

“There may be other information that this committee needs to gather beyond your report?” she asked.

“That,” Valukas replied, “is absolutely possible.”

The message to top lawmakers: Valukas’ report may have captured what happened inside GM but not what happened outside it. And that’s the void Congress will seek to fill.

Feinberg’s fund

Before the hearing, people taped photos of relatives who died in GM’s defective cars along the rear wall of the hearing room. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., noted that there were 15 photos on the wall -- two more than the 13 deaths GM has identified.

This disconnect showed one of Congress’ main unresolved concerns: making sure GM compensates people fairly under the eye of Ken Feinberg, who managed past funds for victims of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Boston Marathon bombings.

Feinberg has said he will release a plan by the end of June and start accepting claims by Aug. 1. DeGette asked Barra for a draft plan, trying to make sure GM won’t restrict claims to the crashes it has already acknowledged as being linked to the defective switch.

“We want to capture every single person who suffered serious physical injury or lost a loved one,” Barra replied. “Every single person.”

On the other side of the Capitol Building, a U.S. Senate subcommittee on consumer protection is planning a hearing. It is expected to take place in July, though no date has been set, probably to ensure that senators have a chance to see Feinberg’s compensation plan first.

New policy

Committee leaders may seem unified now, but this unity is fragile, and it could easily fall apart when it comes time to institute reforms.

Republicans and Democrats have deep ideological differences about how to govern. This means substantial changes in auto-safety law are no fait accompli.

“We don’t yet have all the answers about what changes in our laws, the regulators’ practices or the company’s culture would have prevented this safety defect from lingering so long or harming so many,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., whose support is essentially a prerequisite for any policy change, said in his opening remarks. “But we will find out.”

But reading between the lines, DeGette, who has emerged as House Democrats’ leader in the investigation, is itching to get started.

“Ms. Barra is not the only one with work to do,” she said in her opening remarks. “This committee should get to work on legislation to address the findings of our investigation.”

DeGette hasn’t endorsed any specific changes. But she seems inclined to give regulators more money and power as a check on automakers.

“We need to investigate all of the penalties from NHTSA,” DeGette said in a brief interview after the hearing, “and also whether we have enough resources at NHTSA, and whether they have the investigative authority they need.”

Of course, giving more money and power to a government agency doesn’t come easily to Republicans. Is the entire committee committed to reform?

“Oh, yeah,” DeGette told Automotive News. “You can see it. It’s bipartisan.”

At least for now.

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

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