One of the few sticking points left in the auto safety legislation sailing through Congress is the proposed fee on every vehicle sold in the United States to beef up funding for federal regulators.
The fee, which would rise to $9 per vehicle over three years, is in the House bill but not the Senate version. The two measures are otherwise largely similar in the wake of congressional outrage about regulatory gaps spotlighted by the Toyota recalls.
The fee plan, the brainchild of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has sparked criticism from the auto industry and Republican lawmakers while drawing praise from consumer advocates.
The House bill, which passed Waxman's panel along party lines, would start with a $3-a-vehicle fee on manufacturers and raise it to $9 over three years.
The 2013 cost to the auto industry would be about $120 million, according to an Automotive News estimate based on sales projections drawn from 2007-09 data.
"What starts as a $3 fee quickly becomes $9, and perhaps more," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents companies including General Motors, Toyota, Ford and Chrysler. "All these costs are ultimately paid by consumers. A hundred million dollars is still a lot of money."
The 2013 cost to GM would be about $26.5 million; Toyota, $19.8 million; Ford, $18.7 million; and Chrysler, $13.4 million, according to Automotive News estimates.
The money would go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its vehicle safety programs. Funding for those programs rose 5 percent, to $127 million, during the eight years of the Bush administration.
Annemarie Pender, a spokeswoman for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said funding for those programs should continue to come from the federal budget rather than from a "tax" on car buyers.
Consumer advocates and their champions in Congress disagreed.
"NHTSA was gutted in the last administration," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight. "We've got to pay for government somehow. A $3 fee won't kill anyone."
Congressional inquiries concluded that NHTSA was overmatched in its investigations of Toyota's sudden acceleration problems over the past decade. Toyota wasn't fined until slapped with a record $16.4 million penalty this year.
The legislation also seeks to use the federal budget process to bolster NHTSA funding.
Both House and Senate bills would authorize a doubling of federal funds for NHTSA vehicle safety programs -- from $140 million in fiscal 2010 to $280 million in fiscal 2013. Similar appropriations bills would have to pass Congress and be signed by the president for those increases to go into effect.
The bills are expected to come up for House and Senate votes this summer. If the legislation remains intact, differences over the fee provision would be resolved in a conference of congressional leaders.
Both measures would require automakers to install brake-override systems and event-data recorders, or black boxes, in all new vehicles. Maximum fines for safety defects would rise from $16.4 million to at least $200 million. And NHTSA would be required to consider new standards for pedal placement, electronic systems and keyless ignition systems.