WASHINGTON -- In the coming years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill will weigh in on the midterm evaluation of the Obama administration's signature 2025 fuel economy regulations and whether auto safety regulations need new fundamental changes to ensure the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles.
Together, those two issues represent billions of dollars in industry spending over the next decade, underscoring the stakes for the industry when the mix of red and blue on Capitol Hill is decided on Nov. 8.
"We are at a really consequential time in terms of policy," said Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, whose members include the Detroit 3, Toyota, Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen. "The next year or two or three will be really important for us, and it will be atypically important. These are not going to be ordinary years."
This is no ordinary election, either. The revelation of Donald Trump's 2005 comments about kissing and groping women without their consent sent the Republican Party into a tailspin last week, with dozens of GOP lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, distancing themselves from their presidential nominee, and Trump vowing to punish them for it. The rift revived Democrats' hopes that they could capture both houses of Congress, a prospect that seemed dim a week earlier.
Publicly, industry officials aren't pulling for one side or the other. "Our job is to be prepared for any and all outcomes and to make sure that policymakers and leaders at all levels of government that recognize the stakes for this industry," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents foreign-owned automakers in Washington. "In my experience over the last 20 some odd years that I've been in the industry, our issues don't break down in clearly partisan ways."
Yet some auto executives in Washington say in private that a Democrat-controlled Congress could pressure the industry as it sorts through critical issues.
A key flashpoint in the eyes of auto policy watchers is the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. The panel oversees auto safety and would have to sign off on any legislation to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration new powers that the agency has signaled it needs to oversee autonomous-car safety.
If Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are elected, Democrats would need a net gain of just four Senate seats, plus Kaine's tie-breaking vote as Senate president, to control the chamber. That would depose current Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and lend fresh power to a trio of senators closely aligned with safety advocates.
The chairman's gavel would likely be passed to Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida, who has pushed the industry to act more aggressively on the Takata airbag inflator recalls. Fellow Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts would also see their power grow. The duo are known as "Markenthal" for their frequent collaboration on auto safety issues.
On the House side, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., is expected to step down as chairman of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee due to GOP term limits for committee chairmen.
His exit would remove an industry ally on the powerful panel that oversees agencies with auto industry oversight, including the EPA, NHTSA, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Energy.
Committee chairmen have the power to call hearings and select the witnesses who appear. With the midterm review of the NHTSA's 2025 corporate average fuel economy regulations under way, some auto executives say they're concerned about which party will set the tone for the discussion.
"If you don't have a GOP House, you don't have a Republican who's going to raise issues like affordability and jobs and other things that could be affected by the outcome of the midterm review," one industry insider said. "That could present a challenge."
Most industry insiders in Washington say the odds of Democrats winning a majority in the House are long. Democrats need to pick up 30 seats on Nov. 8 to gain control.
No matter who's in power, the industry will continue to focus on the broad area "between the 40s," Bainwol said, invoking a football term for mostly neutral territory. Both parties agree that vehicles will continue to get cleaner and autonomous car technology must arrive as quickly and safely as possible.
"There's a tendency in politics to magnify differences," he said. "The truth is that there's substantial agreement on where we're headed and we're arguing on the edges."