WASHINGTON -- Corvair. Pinto. Explorer. Cobalt?
Capitol Hill's reaction to General Motors CEO Mary Barra's testimony last week sent a clear signal to Washington insiders: Congress is probably headed toward a round of reforms to U.S. laws and standards, like the ones enacted after the Chevy Corvair, Ford Pinto and Ford Explorer came to symbolize some of the worst auto safety crises in U.S. history.
The coming changes are hard to predict, but when the dust settles and reforms are complete, an entire industry may end up feeling the impact of GM's errors.
Barra vowed to return to Capitol Hill after an internal GM investigation is complete in 45 to 60 days. Separate inquiries by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation also will influence Congress' path forward.
But experts see intense pressure on Congress to do something -- quickly.
"Time is always the enemy for any legislative effort in response to a crisis," David Strickland, NHTSA's administrator until January, said in an interview. "As you move farther and farther away from the crisis, other things happen in the world. It's difficult to maintain momentum for things that looked incredibly important just a few months earlier."
Last week's hearings, which put Barra's face on the front page of the nation's leading newspapers and her apology on the nightly news, made clear that GM's crisis has galvanized support for tougher safety laws. Consumer crusader Ralph Nader, who sparked the nation's first auto-safety laws by detailing the Chevrolet Corvair's unsteady steering in his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, said last week that the GM recall has now reached critical mass.
"This has all the elements," he said in an interview with New York magazine. "It's a cocktail that gets it going. It is very difficult to get the press into that realm. Take it from someone who knows from over the years."
The first legislative proposals have been laid on the table by two liberal Democrats, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Their bill would open up automakers' "early warning reports" to the public and require NHTSA to disclose its inspection and investigation activities. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has introduced a companion bill in the House.
"I've tried, year after year for more than 10 years, to have legislation passed that would require the disclosure of all of this information," Markey told Barra during Wednesday's hearing. "And it was the automobile industry that killed my legislation, year after year. This is the moment now for you to say more than that you're sorry."
Industry insiders say that of all the bills Congress could consider, automakers would likely fight hardest against letting the public see their confidential reports to NHTSA because that would make it easier for plaintiffs' attorneys to sue them.
Regulators may not want the early warning data public either. If automakers become hesitant to submit data to NHTSA, the regulators would end up with less of it.