GM, safety agency face Congress over recalls

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WASHINGTON -- The nation's top auto safety regulator will seek to cast blame on General Motors when he testifies today before a House subcommittee looking into the Chevrolet Cobalt ignition problem.

In written testimony filed in advance, David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, argues that "GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect." Formal written testimony is usually not read in its entirety during a hearing but becomes part of the official record, and it gives strong indications about the tack witnesses will take in the question-and-answer session that follows.

Mr. Friedman is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. The other witness is General Motors chief executive Mary T. Barra, who is expected to strike an apologetic tone. "Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced," she says in her filed testimony. But she pledged to be "fully transparent" when she had answers.

Ms. Barra will also remind lawmakers that GM has created a new position, vice president for global vehicle safety, and named Jeff Boyer, a longtime company engineer, to the job. She also made public an offer previously communicated to dealers, that people who owned one of the recalled vehicles, and did not want to drive it until it could be fixed, could get a loaner car or a rental from a GM dealer. She will add that "if a customer is already looking for another car, dealers can provide an additional cash allowance for the purchase or lease of a new vehicle."

Ms. Barra on Monday received a list of questions from top committee Democrats, who wrote to her giving new details about the faulty ignition switches her company accepted. The Democrats said they were told by Delphi, the parts manufacturer that supplied the switches, that the force needed to turn the key in the switches was in some cases only about one-quarter of the minimum specified by General Motors, and in 12 tests, only two samples reached two-thirds of the minimum force GM required.

Even the beefed-up switches installed in the 2008-11 model-year cars did not meet GM's specification, Ms. Barra was told in a letter from California Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the full committee, and others who will be questioning her. The switches are used in Chevrolet Cobalts and HHRs, Saturn Ions and Skys, and the Pontiac G5s and Solstice models.

The investigation is bipartisan, but committee Republicans are likely to focus on the Obama administration's performance, meaning the highway traffic safety agency's role. In many House hearings, Republicans question agency officials aggressively and Democrats ask friendlier questions. But in this case, it is unclear that NHTSA will have many friends.

Mr. Friedman's prepared testimony notes that it is not only the committee that is conducting an inquiry. The Transportation Department's inspector general is looking into the highway traffic safety agency's effectiveness, his testimony points out.

But much of his testimony stresses how many defects his agency has successfully identified, and how many recalls have been conducted -- in contrast to the Cobalt problem, which NHTSA missed until General Motors issued the recall. The highway agency had dismissed dozens of consumer complaints.

Mr. Friedman's filed testimony also indicated that his engineers misunderstood the air bag problem. The Office of Defects Investigation, he said, "did not have clear evidence of a connection between the ignition switch being in the accessory mode and the air bag nondeployment."

Another line of questioning at today's hearing may be the effect of GM's bankruptcy in June 2009. A report by the House committee's Democratic staff points out that when the company emerged from bankruptcy on July 10, 2009, it was shielded from claims for crashes before that date.

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