"It's a very significant moment," said former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook. "There's been one disaster after another, and they've all gotten tons of publicity, and the public is finally becoming aware of the industry's overt misbehavior which results in death and injury. Now they are very concerned that the government is not doing its job, and it's not."
David Friedman, NHTSA's top official, defended his agency as understaffed but vigilant as ever. In the case of GM, he pointed the finger at the company, which he said withheld critical information and created a culture of "denial and delay that cost lives and endangered the American public."
But the House investigative report, prepared by Republican majority staff, said that NHTSA exhibited many of the same cultural shortcomings as GM. And Friedman's comments before, during and after the Senate hearing only seemed to deepen critics' concerns that the agency is too cozy with the industry it regulates and out of touch with the motoring public.
"What we have here at NHTSA is a fundamental failure to deal with this essential issue of the priority that the American people put on safety in automobiles," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., dismissing Friedman's defense of his agency. "People really want a cop on the beat."
The result, if lawmakers are able to turn their incredulity into significant reform, could be a scrappier watchdog in Washington. During the next few months, Congress is set to consider several bills intended to make the regulator more powerful, more transparent and better-funded. They would, among other things, open up data from "early warning" defect reports to the public, increase the fines the agency could levy against automakers and subject executives to stiffer penalties for breaking safety laws.
But that's a big if. Despite the emerging consensus, Washington remains squeezed by political gridlock and time pressure ahead of midterm elections. Any proposed reforms likely would be watered down to get through a divided Congress. If reform bills don't gain traction until after the elections, and Republicans gain control of the Senate, legislation to strengthen regulation could face an even tougher slog.
One near-term change could come in the form of new leadership at NHTSA. Friedman had served as acting administrator since the resignation of his boss, David Strickland, in December. But his title reverted to deputy administrator after he exhausted the 210-day limit for a temporary post. Senators called on President Barack Obama to move quickly to name a new chief.
One way or another, lawmakers made it clear last week that they expect some changes.
"We'll keep looking for answers and keep working toward solutions -- whether it means changing our laws or pressing for change at the companies that follow them and the agencies that enforce them," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wrote the House report criticizing NHTSA. "But we know for sure that NHTSA was part of the problem and is going to have to be part of the solution."
The report found that NHTSA failed to identify GM's defective ignition switches despite having "ample evidence" of the flawed part as far back as 2007, including reports from crash investigations that it commissioned.
It concluded that NHTSA failed to understand the implications of its own regulations on advanced airbags and that it operated in a siloed culture that impeded the flow of information -- the very deficiencies that turned up in former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas' report of what went wrong at GM.
NHTSA, the report said, "does not hold itself to the same standard of accountability as those it regulates."
And while GM has made sweeping changes in the wake of its crisis, the report said, "there is no evidence, at least publicly, that anything has changed at the agency."
At the hearing Wednesday, Sept. 17, senators seized on the House report and earlier reports by The Times to press Friedman on the need to reform.
NHTSA has been "more interested in singing kumbaya with the manufacturers than being a cop on the beat," exclaimed Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who led the hearing.
While Friedman reluctantly acknowledged "there are clearly things, looking back into the history of this, that we need to improve," the senators signaled concern.
"I was troubled by his refusal to take responsibility," McCaskill said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he had hoped Friedman would be "more forthcoming and receptive to the kind of reform that is clearly necessary."
Claybrook says it's time for the agency to reframe its relationship with automakers, even if it means incurring their wrath. "If you're tough ... you protect the industry. Then you don't have these long, drawn-out public cases that make them look terrible. You save them from themselves."