Lawmakers introduced several bills to strengthen NHTSA last year after the GM ignition switch recalls, though they have gained little traction since.
One such bill, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sought to eliminate the $35 million cap on civil penalties for companies that violate auto safety laws and double NHTSA's funding over six years, among other things.
An updated version of the Obama administration's multiyear transportation bill, dubbed the Grow America Act, unveiled this month has similar provisions to boost funding for defect investigations and toughen penalties.
Jackie Gillan, president of the lobbying group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says she is hopeful that those initiatives can get bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said the agency needs to undertake some reforms on its own to improve its effectiveness.
"It doesn't matter what you detect, because if you don't get the recalls taken care of, you've still got that risk," Rosekind said in January. "It's the whole system that has to be looked at."
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., says Rosekind's comments suggest that the agency will tackle long-standing internal issues even absent action from Congress.
"The agency has more than a funding problem," Kane said. "They have some fundamental problems that need to be solved before throwing any more money at the agency."