Defeat on Fuel Proposal Echoes Big 3s Impotence

By: Anthony Fontanelle

If any uncertainty lingered that Detroit's automakers has lost most of its once significant political clout on Capitol Hill, the Senate's uneven vote this week to increase fuel economy mandates eliminated it.

The most exhaustive lobbying of Detroit's Big Three was not only defeated, it was virtually ignored by the Senate that voted 65-27 to approve fuel economy regulations that the automakers said could cripple the industry. "We don't believe you anymore," Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid said Friday. "We've had enough."

The Big Three's impotence is backed by several reasons. Critics said that the industry lost credibility by fighting even modest fuel measures in the past decade with sky-is-falling rhetoric. The Big Three is losing the struggle with foreign automakers, slashing jobs and closing plants in territories where they once held influence over members of the Congress.

Eventually, increasing concerns on global warming and foreign oil dependence have become too worrisome that no lawmaker can afford to overlook. The influence and respect to the Big Three were replaced by lectures about building 'relevant' product lines.

"This whole thing has nothing to do with energy policy, CO2 or the environment," General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said last Friday. "This is purely punitive; the 'big business haters' finally giving us our due for decades of 'colluding with oil companies' and 'forcing the U.S. public to buy big SUVs.' Make no mistake: these people hate us and want to inflict pain." The situation can be likened to a that is incapable of securing the exhaust system of the car.

Chrysler Vice President Jason Vines, lamented on Mitch Albom's radio show Friday, that America seems to be the only country where the government does not care about and protect its domestic auto industry. He said that it was time to "give a damn" about an industry that creates jobs and wealth for hundreds of thousands of people.

But the tide seems to be moving to the opposite direction. Japanese automakers consist of the Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and the Nissan Motor Co. and they are gaining traction because of the clout. "The auto political clout is spread out among domestic and transplant auto manufacturers," said Walter McManus, the head of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's auto analysis division. "That's the reality." To stress, Nissan was a main lobbying force in winning changes in the fuel economy mandate that led senators in Tennessee and Mississippi to back it.

The Big Three's rough year on Capitol Hill is not likely to get any better in next to no time. Automakers have urged Congress to do more to fight what they call "currency manipulation" by Japan and China. Additionally, they have asked for help with their soaring medical costs. The efforts have gained less traction.

The General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group executives were called to an afternoon meeting last Friday with an aide to U.S. Rep John Dingell, D-Dearborn, to tackle the auto industry's predicament.

Automakers had, for the first time, backed less onerous compromise fuel plan. The plan by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and others would have required carmakers to raise the car gas mileage to 36 mpg by 2022 and light truck mileage to 30 mpg by 2025. Even that compromise was not enough.

"The [Senate] bill would mean the death of Michigan," said U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, D-Brighton. "We owe it to a lot of families who rely on the auto industry to get this right."

"You think things are bad now in Michigan? You haven't seen anything yet if that bill became law," added Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee. "Ultimately, the public will pay the price," Lutz said.

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