GM's long road back to good graces

General Motors will have a tough time repairing its battered image nationally and in Washington after two days of brutal hearings this week that were summed up when one senator said of the company’s CEO, “you don’t know anything about anything.”

GM CEO Mary Barra, who is in her first year at the helm of the company, drew scathing reviews for her first appearance before lawmakers this week as she tried to explain why the automaker waited years to recall cars that had a dangerous safety defect. 

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GM is accused of purposely delaying a recall on the ignition switches that were used in 1.6 million of its cars. In some cases, the delay was reportedly for as long as 10 years, and GM is alleged to have wanted to avoid paying for repairs. 

The faulty ignition switches have been found to abruptly shut off cars if drivers’ key chains are too heavy, and have been linked to 13 deaths since 2005. 

Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation, told The Hill on Friday that the damage had been done for GM long before the hearings took place this week. 

“They were setting themselves up for a difficult situation no matter how [lawmakers] reacted on the Hill,” Schank said. “I don’t think the most masterful testifier could have made it any better.” 

The recalls at issue involve several GM models that were made between 2004 and 2010. The company was already unpopular with many conservatives because it received a $50 billion bailout from the federal government in 2008 and 2009. 

Barra became GM’s first female CEO in January of this year. Her selection was heralded because she was the first woman to be selected to run one of the Detroit-based “Big Three” automakers, and she was also the highest ranking female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. 

Lawmakers sharply criticized Bara at this week’s hearings.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Barra she was disappointed in her attempts to separate herself from decisions that were made at GM before she became CEO “as a woman.” 

“And I am very disappointed, really, as a woman to woman, I am very disappointed, because the culture that you are representing here today is a culture of the status quo,” Boxer said after pointing out that Barra had been at GM in different roles for more than 30 years. 

Barra told lawmakers that she was “deeply sorry” for the company’s failure to issue a recall of its faulty vehicles earlier, and she said after the hearings that she thought her treatment from lawmakers was “tough but fair.” 

“I appreciate the intense interest by the senators to fully understand what happened and why,” Barra said in a statement released after she finished testifying. “I am going to accomplish exactly that, and we will keep Congress informed. Meanwhile, we will continue doing all we can to repair our customers' vehicles and rebuild their trust in GM.”

The Eno Center’s Schank said the GM chief will have a long way to go to accomplish that mission. 

“Everybody loves to beat up on large corporations that are seen as valuing profits over human life,” Schank told The Hill on Friday. “That’s a pretty salient headline. [Lawmakers] can frame that argument.”