By Keith Laing and Kevin Bogardus - 04/01/14 06:00 AM EDT
General Motors CEO Mary Barra will step into the spotlight’s glare Tuesday as she fields questions from lawmakers about why it took her company more than a decade to recall vehicles with a dangerous ignition switch problem.
Barra, who is in her first year as GM’s chief, is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee before heading to the Senate on Wednesday for another grilling.
“As soon as l learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. We told the world we had a problem that needed to be fixed,” Barra said in written testimony that was submitted to the House panel.
“We did so because whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future,” Barra said. “Today’s GM will do the right thing.”
On the eve of the House hearing, GM recalled another 1.3 million mid-to-late 2000’s models that have faulty power steering mechanisms.
Lawmakers are questioning whether GM acted promptly enough on the first recall, which involved several models from the mid-2000s.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recalled the GM vehicles in February after finding that the ignition switches have problems such as turning off motors and disabling airbags, when they are used with heavier key rings.
The problem was said to affect 1.6 million GM vehicles and has been linked to 12 deaths.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is demanding answers from GM and the highway safety agency about why they waited until this year to issue recalls on cars that are several years old.
Upton has said the agency and the car company could have been in violation of a 2000 law that requires recalls to be issued promptly after recurring mechanical issues are discovered.
“Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?” Upton asked in a statement announcing the Tuesday hearing.
“If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended,” Upton continued. “Americans deserve to have the peace of mind that they are safe behind the wheel. We plan to seek detailed information from both NHTSA and GM.”
The hearing is a major test for Barra, and more broadly for GM, which has been the target of political controversy since receiving government assistance in 2008.
Critics dubbed the company “Government Motors” after the $50 billion federal rescue, and the company has kept a lower profile in Washington, despite efforts by Democrats to take credit for their recovery.
Barra’s selection in late 2013 drew wide applause, as she became the first woman to lead an American car company and the highest-ranking female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company in the U.S.
The GM chief signaled she would tell lawmakers that she has done everything by the book with the recalled vehicles.
Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman, meanwhile, is expected to blame GM for delayed recalls in his testimony.
“GM first provided NHTSA a chronology of events on February 24, 2014. The information in GM’s chronology raises serious questions as to the timeliness of GM’s recall,” Friedman said in written testimony that was submitted to the panel. “As a result, on February 26, NHTSA opened its present investigation, a timeliness query.”
The hearings are also a test for General Motors’s lobbying team, which has gone through a major reshuffling since the government bailout.
Ken Cole, then GM’s long-time chief lobbyist, left the company to join Pfizer in 2010. Bob Ferguson, a former chief of staff to then-Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft (R), came on board with GM in 2010 but by 2012, he was picked to lead the company’s Cadillac brand.
Last year, GM appointed Victoria Barnes — a former Republican National Committee aide who has been with the company since 2003 — to be its new executive director of federal affairs.
Despite the changes, the company has remained one of Washington’s heavy lobbying spenders.
The auto company spent more than $8.8 million on lobbying last year, according to disclosure records. That’s a boost from almost $7.2 million that GM spent on advocacy for 2012.
Those sums, however, don’t match the company’s highest total spent on K Street — nearly $14.3 million in 2007.
That was before GM’s bankruptcy and later federal bailout in 2009. Critics wanted the company to end its lobbying and political spending in Washington during that time, but GM assented only to paring back its advocacy operations while under government control.
As of now, the auto giant has more than a half-dozen top lobby firms on its payroll, including the Duberstein Group, Roberti Associates, The Nickles Group and Clark Geduldig Cranford Nielsen.
David Leviss, a partner at law firm O’Melveny & Myers, said the role of General Motors’s lobbyists “in a true oversight hearing is identifying who are your friendlies and who are your enemies. And with your friendlies, what will they do to advance the company’s message?”
Leviss is former chief oversight counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and helped lead that panel’s investigation into Toyota’s safety problems. He said GM should hope “that there will be no fireworks, and they can pack up and go home.”
“The more members that they convince that this hearing won’t be worth their time and not to show up, the better off they will be,” Leviss said. “That’s going to be a tall order this time. This hearing guarantees publicity and has bipartisan support.”