WASHINGTON — Congress is expected to focus more attention on the auto industry this year, and Rep. Debbie Dingell will be at the center of those policy debates.
Dingell, who succeeded her husband, John Dingell, as the representative for Michigan's 12th District, is entering her third term. Many consider her the most knowledgeable person on Capitol Hill regarding automotive issues, given her three-decade tenure at General Motors, where she led the GM Foundation and was executive director of public affairs and community relations in Washington. She also chaired a manufacturing initiative at the American Automotive Policy Council.
Dingell, 65, has been a vocal advocate in Congress for the U.S. auto industry, especially the Detroit 3. So it was notable that she so vociferously criticized GM's announcement in November that it would cut as much as 15 percent of its North American work force and possibly close several factories as part of a restructuring.
Dingell's passion for politics and ensuring a strong automotive sector was on display during an interview in her office with Automotive News Staff Reporter Eric Kulisch and Chief Content Officer Jamie Butters. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: GM announced a large restructuring that will cost 14,000 jobs and idle or close several plants. Lawmakers are encouraging the company to allocate new models to those plants. You've criticized GM for being absent from Washington unless there is a crisis. What would you have liked them to do differently?
A: Relationships matter. If you've got hard times, or issues you need help with, you can't just parachute in. You've got to cultivate those relationships; you need to educate people about your economic impact; you've got to invite the members into your plants.
If a company like GM feels it needs to rightsize, what is government's role?
I'm not trying to micromanage the business. I don't think that's the proper role of a policymaker, but I think GM did a terrible job in how they handled the announcement. If I were advising them, I would have told them to start talking earlier about a softening in sales.
[About the time] GM surprised the world, [Ford Motor Co. announced it would downsize two plants and relocate workers], but Ford's part of the community. I live in Dearborn. I go by Ford every day because of where I live, when I'm there. I see [Executive Chairman] Bill Ford, I see [CEO] Jim Hackett, Joe Hinrichs [president of global operations]. I'm at events. And they're in the community. They don't live in the bubble. What I know about the Ford business comes in everyday [interactions].
The GM management is almost in a bubble. I don't expect calls all the time. But [at Ford], they reach out, they talk to you, you understand the issues. I understand Ford's challenges, and I don't understand it from one of them. I understand it from Bill and Jim and Joe. I talk to everybody. They're downsizing.
When the Corktown [campus development project in Detroit] came up, they reached out to me. The president of Ford land development, they came in and shared this new vision.
But isn't the result the same? They're better communicators, but they're still cutting workers.
When Ford took a shift out of Flat Rock, they had told me it was soft in Kentucky. They told me on Monday, but didn't announce it publicly [until Wednesday]. They talked to their workers. Every worker had a job relatively close.
GM handled it differently, didn't talk to every employee, and relocation offers are at plants not close by. Meanwhile, the news that Chrysler is bringing new jobs to Detroit broke at the same time. So, just compare the differences. I talk to Chrysler regularly.
Is it surprising to you that GM handled it the way it did?
I'm not going to lay off GM right now, because we have to get them sensitive to the importance of talking to people and relationships. And yes, you've got a responsibility to your shareholders, but don't you have a responsibility to the workers who are making you a success, too?
And we shouldn't micromanage. They're having to make tough decisions, but you need to communicate to all of the stakeholders what is going on and how the business is changing.
I'm worried about Ford. But Ford cares about their relationship with the UAW and is working hard on it. And Ford is building their SUVs and trucks here in the U.S. And Chrysler is working hard to locate here, too.
If you have to change your business plan, then include your stakeholders.
I'm not an egotist [who needs constant attention from CEOs], but I do pay attention to detail, and I do work these issues. I say exactly what I think, and I'm going to do what's right for the people of my district, my state and this country.
What is your position on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal?
I call it NAFTA 2.0 because the first NAFTA is what shipped jobs overseas. Until you can assure me we won't be building new plants in Mexico, I'm not voting for this.
House Democrats are creating a committee to address climate change. It won't have subpoena power or the ability to introduce legislation, so what will it mean?
I've supported new emissions standards through 2030. The select committee and the Energy & Commerce Committee will look at CAFE. This administration has gutted environmental [regulations]. We are going to try and put teeth back into a lot of things that have happened. And people have already been drafting legislation to keep CAFE standards where they are.
You’ve championed more public support to jump-start the transition to electric vehicles. But how are you going to find money for EV infrastructure when we can’t find money to repair traditional legacy infrastructure?
So, you think that Jerry Brown [the recent governor of California] and I haven't had this screaming match?
Jerry, please don't tell me that the companies aren't building EVs. We're not building the infrastructure to support it. So maybe the focus is on the wrong thing. If we convince the consumer to buy it, make it more affordable and build the infrastructure to support it, maybe then we'll start selling them.
People who think about the [tax] credit don't think about the charging. When we start to increase the volume, how many people are going to have the patience to fill up their car at a recharging station that takes 30 minutes? And how to pay the electrician to install the 220-volt plug in your garage, and how to incentivize that? And what's going to happen to the confidence in EVs the first time you have a fire in somebody's garage because you don't have a qualified electrician doing it?