Project 21 New Visions

 

Kevin Martin

Car-Crazy Congress Set to Break the American Auto Industry


by Kevin Martin (bio)

Barack Obama wants you to drive a car that gets over 40 miles per gallon, but it's a case of "do as I say and not what I do."

Obama was one of the 65 senators who voted in late June to raise federally-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars, minivans and SUVs to 35 miles per gallon.

In a May speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the senator said his goal is "to help bring [the auto industry] into the 21st century."  He proposed requiring automakers to increase their fuel economy standards by four percent - approximately one mile per gallon of gas - per year starting in 2009.

You might expect that Obama already drives a hybrid car that gets great gas mileage to show he's doing his part.  You'd be wrong.  Obama owns a Chrysler 300C.  The 2006 model gets 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 miles per gallon on the highway.

The Chrysler 300C is a very nice car with a powerful engine and lots of comfortable legroom for a man of his size.  I don't fault him for his choice.  It is, after all, his choice.

I choose to drive a Suzuki Grand Vitara.  It gets me 18 miles per gallon in the city and 22 miles per gallon on the highway.  I need an SUV because my job as an environmental contractor requires me to carry both equipment and people to building sites.  I can't do that in a hybrid Honda Insight.

Besides, I can't even buy a Honda Insight anymore.  Honda discontinued it last year due to poor sales, and it just announced it is discontinuing its Accord hybrid for the same reason.

Whether it is for work, safety or family needs, Americans like larger vehicles.  Of the top-selling cars in 2006, according to Automotive News, three of the top four are pick-ups.  A family with several young children may have to buy an SUV or a minivan, not just because they have a ton of soccer equipment to haul around, but also because state child-safety seat laws essentially require them to have something with more carrying capacity than most sedans.

Already, safety has been compromised to meet existing CAFE standards.  According to a 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences, approximately 2,000 deaths per year since 1975 can be attributed to smaller vehicles that were downsized to increase their fuel efficiency.  Raising fuel economy requirements again will make the reincarnation of a car-safety blunder like the AMC Pacer almost a certainty.

Then there are the economic implications.  Automakers can't just flip a switch and make more fuel-efficient cars.  The process of retooling will be long and expensive - particularly for American automakers that have been serving America's demand for bigger vehicles.

Obama's legislation would give $3 billion to the Big 3 American automakers (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors).  That's a start, but it is estimated that retooling costs might actually hover at around $85 billion.  Seeing as the American auto industry is already in financial jeopardy, increased CAFE standards may be a death sentence.

Alan Reuther, the legislative director of the United Auto Workers, testified in the Senate on May 3 that "something will have to give."  He makes a dire prediction for the future of the American automotive industry: "The most likely result is that these companies will be forced to shutter more facilities, destroying jobs for tens of thousands of additional workers and weakening the economic base of many communities across this country.  They will also be pressured to reduce or completely eliminate health insurance coverage for their 550,000 retired workers and their families."

Less choice, less safety, fewer jobs and no health care.  Yet 65 of our elected officials in the Senate thought raising CAFE standards is a good idea.  I hope the House of Representatives is a little more prudent, or President Bush might get out his veto pen if Congress can't think logically.

When it comes to leading by example, Obama came up short in his personal life.  But he apparently believes it is important to show his support for wise automotive choices when the cameras are rolling.  His presidential campaign has reportedly leased an environment-friendly flex-fuel hybrid.

Remember, it's do as I say and not as I do.

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Kevin Martin is a member of the National Advisory Council the Project 21 black leadership network.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.


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