| WASHINGTON, April 1
WASHINGTON, April 1 The U.S. Congress will try
to establish who is to blame for at least 13 auto-related deaths
over the past decade, as public hearings are launched on Tuesday
on General Motors Co's slow response to defective
ignition switches in cars.
Despite tougher laws being enacted in 2000 and 2010 to
encourage automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA) to aggressively root out safety concerns,
it took GM more than a decade to acknowledge publicly that it
had a potentially fatal problem.
Documents that GM and NHTSA turned over to the House of
Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee have provided new
insights into GM's practices.
They include decisions to install ignition switches in
Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models that did not
meet all of the company's own specifications.
Even worse, some in Congress are beginning to wonder whether
more people died in cars outfitted with faulty switches, beyond
the 13 GM identified, as they review documents pointing to a
redesigned replacement part that also could be substandard.
The committee, as well as a Senate panel on Wednesday, is
expected to begin demanding answers from GM on whether decisions
like that directly contributed to crashes.
So far, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars to replace ignition
switches that could unexpectedly stall out engines, prevent
airbags from deploying and make power brakes and power steering
"Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they
take us as we work to pinpoint where the system failed," House
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan
Republican, said on Sunday.
On the receiving end of questions by Upton and other members
of the panel's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will be
GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, who has repeatedly
apologized for her company's performance.
Barra, who became CEO in January, says in prepared testimony
released by the committee that she "cannot tell you why it took
years for a safety defect to be announced."
Barra promised to get to the root of the problem.
The congressional committee might not want to patiently
wait, however, and it could call lower-level GM employees to
testify at later hearings or even former CEOs.
NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman also will be on
the hot seat on Tuesday, as many lawmakers are expected to ask
why the regulatory agency was not more aggressive in identifying
the problem and forcing GM to act.
For Barra and GM the stakes are high.
The Detroit automaker survived a 2009 bankruptcy
reorganization and a subsequent government takeover. The U.S.
Treasury exited the last of its taxpayer stake in the company
With the U.S. economy climbing out of a deep economic
recession and new success with a product line that included
highly profitable trucks, GM started the year optimistic.
Instead, the recalls and revelations that GM hid the problem
for years, even after being confronted by devastated families
who lost relatives in car crashes, have taken the sheen off of
Now, the company and some of its employees are hung up in
House and Senate investigations, a U.S. Justice Department
criminal probe and several lawsuits. Meanwhile, its legal costs
are escalating and nobody is sure what further steps GM might
have to take to protect consumers from vehicles it sold as long
as a decade ago.
All of this could have an impact on GM's bottom line in
Past congressional investigations of Toyota Motor Corp
in 2010 and Ford Motor Co and Firestone
tire-maker 10 years earlier have produced riveting testimony
from victims and the GM probe may be no different.
John Kimberly, a business consultant and a professor at the
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said Barra
should learn from the mistakes other companies have made in the
midst of high-profile congressional probes.
He pointed to BP, which was criticized for minimizing
the damage caused by its massive, 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of
Mexico during testimony to Congress.
Kimberley added that it would be a "huge mistake" for Barra
to hide behind legal protections by drawing a distinction
between GM pre- and post-bankruptcy and blame the handling of
the recall on the former.
Congressional investigations often boil down to a version of
one central question - a question made famous by former
Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.
"What did the president know and when did he know it," Baker
said of then-President Richard Nixon during a defining moment in
the Watergate hearings of 1973-74.
That is the question congressional investigators are asking
of GM and NHTSA officials. It may take months to find the
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Karey Van
Hall and Lisa Shumaker)