Volkswagen has not cleaned up its act, time for Congress to step in

Volkswagen has not cleaned up its act, time for Congress to step in

When professional baseball was embroiled in its major steroid abuse scandal in the early 2000s, Congress responsibly stepped in and convened hearings to hold the league accountable for its players’ rampant use of performance-enhancing steroids. The hearings brought national attention to this issue and resulted in sweeping and effective rule changes — today, those players and teams who get caught skirting the system are punished severely. 

Now, Congress needs to take the same approach to address another case of repeated and flagrant cheating, one that poses a real danger to millions of Americans. This time it’s Volkswagen’s use of illegal devices that fool emissions tests set in place to protect consumers from deadly emissions and their embedded chemicals.  


Volkswagen’s deceptive emissions practices began in 2006 when instead of complying with the Clean Air Act was passed to protect the American people from harmful chemicals and pollutants like nitrous oxide, the automaker invented a “defeat device” that allowed its cars to fool emissions tests. Volkswagen’s deceptive practices even included wildly cruel experiments on monkeys to prove that diesel exhaust is not harmful.


But, of course, it is.

Volkswagen hoodwinked regulators for eight years, installing “defeat devices” on 11 million cars worldwide and nearly 600,000 vehicles in the U.S. Finally, in late 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other global regulators caught onto the company’s deceptive practices. Agencies around the world began to investigate and punish Volkswagen with unprecedented fines, and the company was forced to recall the cars and remove the devices. 

Yet, despite its promise to make amends (both publicly and under oath,) to regain the public’s trust and to remove all “defeat devices” and cease their related practices, Volkswagen only strengthened its devices and searched for new ways to dodge emissions standards. All the while, its actions have caused, in our country alone, an estimated 59 premature deaths from its vehicles’ nitrous oxide emissions.

In 2017, German authorities demanded a recall of two additional VW model vehicles that were also equipped with defeat devices and other features to fool regulators. The automaker now faces similar recalls in China and has even been caught engaging in illegal “cartel activities” with some of its fellow automakers in order to keep beating the oversight system.

Congress must finally step in, and Reps. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum to speak at gathering of top Dem donors: report GOP opens door to new NC election amid fraud claims Gillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report MORE (R-Fla.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingDem pollster says most lawmakers lack tech policy knowledge Congress missed chance to address data security during Google hearing, says Dem strategist Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — Google CEO gets grilling before Congress | Pressure builds for election security bill | Trump to target China over IP theft | Experts warn cyber criminals growing more brazen MORE (R-Iowa), Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonK Street works to court minority lawmakers Black Caucus huddles as talk of term limits heats up The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda MORE (D-Texas) and other members on both sides of the aisle seem prepared to lead the charge. 

A good place to start would be a public hearing calling Volkswagen’s senior most executives to task. They need the bright lights of Congress shining on them in the hearing room while they try to explain and justify to the American people their decade-long pernicious and deceptive actions.

Those now long ago congressional hearings regarding steroids abuse led to much stricter rules in Major League Baseball — first-time and second- time offenders are now hit with significant penalties, and third-time offenders are banned for life.  

Volkswagen already has two strikes against it. By insisting on a public hearing, Congress can teach the German auto-giant that, for American regulators and consumers, three strikes means you’re out. 

This piece has been updated.

Leo Hindery, Jr. is the co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessors Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Liberty Media.