WASHINGTON — The midterm elections will mark the end of an era as several legislators with long-standing, deep ties to the auto industry retire.
Chief among them is Rep. John Dingell, the 88-year-old Michigan Democrat and the longest serving member of the House. He has been a champion of the auto industry and Detroit’s automakers since he first took office nearly 58 years ago, putting him at the center of such key turning points as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Ralph Nader’s safety crusade and the government bailouts that saved General Motors and Chrysler. His wit and legislative acumen make him tough to replace.
But as Dingell and other key auto industry supporters exit, new ones are poised to rise.
- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.: Co-chair of the Senate Auto Caucus and an influential early supporter of the 2009 bailouts, Levin has served in the Senate since 1978. He has been a steadfast backer of organized labor and automakers in his home state, even going against his own party in 2007 when he pushed for changes to fuel economy standards that were more palatable to Detroit automakers.
- Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.: Rockefeller was Congress’ in-house expert on the Japanese auto industry, the byproduct of studies in Tokyo as a young man. He parlayed that interest into efforts to lure a Toyota engine plant to his home state.
- Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.: He has been an advocate for U.S. automakers on international trade issues, calling on Japan to eliminate barriers that effectively limit imports. He co-sponsored legislation to expand federal loans and tax credits for advanced vehicle manufacturing. He has chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee since 2010.
- Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.: Although he has often been a thorn in the industry’s side, Waxman’s political savvy and ability to pass laws earned him the respect of automakers. His environmental commitment played a big role in the emerging fuel economy and emissions standards, which while tough are predictable and consistent from state to state.
On the rise
- Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich.: Peters’ legislative career was forged in the depths of the 2009 industry crisis. He was a vocal supporter of the auto bailouts and backed legislation to provide federal loans for automakers and suppliers working on advanced-technology vehicles. Now, he is co-chair of the House Auto Caucus and running to fill Levin’s Senate seat.
- Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.: The congressman is seen in Washington as an industry ally with a mind for smart policy when he’s not fending off the GOP’s Tea Party faction. His chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee makes him a powerful lawmaker, and it’s power he has used recently to push for more answers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
- Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.: The former dealer and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has shown a keen interest in autonomous cars, a subject ripe for debate and legislation as automakers roll out new technologies with a scant regulatory framework.
- Sens. Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal and Claire McCaskill: As members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, they have been the loudest advocates for strengthening NHTSA in the wake of the GM ignition switch defects and, now, the Takata airbag recalls. They have introduced bills to give NHTSA more funding, enforcement power and transparency. If Republicans take control of the Senate as expected, these Democrats will lose some clout but seem unlikely to back off on auto safety.