Clunkers: Still not enough answers

I’m floored at the pace with which the House of Representatives acted to dump more money into the Car Allowance Rebate System, or “cash-for-clunkers.” Before it was even clear to me what was happening with the money, the House had taken $2 billion from a program for loan guarantees to support renewable energy.

Even stranger is how quiet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been on the performance of the program. Dealers and auto manufacturers are waving estimates of transactions completed and fuel economy gains made through the program, but NHTSA has been on the sidelines, failing to use its data on the completed transactions to confirm or deny dealer claims. If the program were the roaring success that everyone has been claiming, wouldn’t NHTSA be the first in line to take the credit?

The main weakness with the structure of the program is that we can’t say whether there are fuel economy benefits until the transactions are done. Strengthening the requirements for fuel economy would go a long way toward quelling fear that this program has been a boondoggle. And again, if the fuel economy gains are what are being claimed by the industry, then the flood of consumers busting down dealership doors won’t be quelled by calls for real environmental benefits.

The Senate should slow down and take the time to ask questions before pushing through more cash for clunkers. What it should not do is get caught up in a false sense of urgency. This is not an emergency -- consumers ready to trade in their cars today still will be ready in a month. And in the meantime, we can get the real information from NHTSA on what we got for $1 billion.

by Lena Pons, policy analyst, Public Citizen's Congress Watch