The Political three-way dance of Barra, Friedman, and Congress

There is a delicate, almost Bolshoi-like choreography going on in Washington, D.C. right now as a classical three-way interaction between the head of an automotive giant, the head of one of the nation’s largest bureaucracies, and a group of people known for blustering and flustering without actual content. I speak, of course, of the congressional hearings happening in and around the General Motors ignition switch recall.

pol_congress08__01__630x420It’s a smooth, fluid choreography of question-and-answer as each partner in the hearing dance throws, deflects, twists and returns the story line in a way that is reminiscent of the best that ballet has to offer.

The core question is why it took a decade for GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue a recall on faulty ignition switches that have so far caused the death of at least thirteen people and countless other serious safety problems in GM-made cars.

This question, of course, is rarely asked directly of anyone involved in the hearings who could possibly answer it in a succinct, honest fashion. It is, instead, asked of the woman currently in charge of GM, CEO Mary Barra, who admittedly inherited this problem from previous management, but who herself has been a key player in GM executive roles for over a decade. It’s also, occasionally, fielded to David Friedman, head of the NHTSA, and a consummate bureaucrat who didn’t gain his position without knowing how to  pirouette around blame and criticism.

Three things are at play here:

First, the issue is public enough that congress had to create a “hearing” for it, thus beginning the performance and opening the theater to the public.

Second, that move meant that, obviously, the NHTSA had to become involved because they are the government’s “automotive safety” arm. For what that’s worth. Thus the leading man was introduced.

Third, since the questions involve GM vehicles, that company had to be invited to provide the lead soloist and they sent head honcho Mary Barra to play the role.

So the congresscritters involved ask a lot of questions, most of which are either irrelevant or are merely grandstanding political statements couched in the form of questions in the political Jeopardy that is the norm in D.C. Barra and Friedman move about the stage leaping, pirouetting, and swooning to avoid or deflect the questions in an effort to avoid any kind of direct answer that might be used as a political barb later.

Nothing relevant, of course, is ever really presented in a forthright manner or with any glint of truth or honesty as the performance moves through its acts.

colinheight1From what little can be gleaned, the issue appears to be two-fold. GM knew about the problem with the ignition switches. That much has been made clear. They deny believing it was as serious as it might be (how serious the problem really is would depend on who you ask). The NHTSA, for their part, was also investigating the issue because, while GM was the major player here, a total of 3.5 million vehicles have been ivnestigated for airbag non-deployment as an ongoing thing.

The real trouble appears to be what’s not being mentioned: Collusion. A decade ago, when this problem first arose, GM was no in a position to weather a major recall of this magnitude. They were barely able to keep their doors open; nevermind trying to cover a multi-million dollar recall event like this. The NHTSA, for their part, has a history of housing automotive insiders in its leadership positions. Unspoken is the idea that GM’s very real financial concerns could have played a role in the NHTSA’s apparent downplaying of the investigation and reluctance to issue a recall sooner.

As the dance continues, we see Barra working to act as if she’s taking the blame while at the same time deflecting responsibility for the ignition switch and airbag issue away from GM. Meanwhile, the NHTSA, which should have been outed here as a faux danseur in safety oversight has instead managed, so far, to slide around questioning without even faking an injury in the process.

The truth is, GM knew there was a problem and even internally acknowledged both it and the reason they couldn’t address it (finances), but the oversight agency in charge, the NHTSA, also knew there was a problem, had investigated it, and for reasons not blatantly stated, decided not to pursue it as a forced recall. Meanwhile congress, who has little interest in actually finding the root cause of anything, has set the stage and is letting the performance run through its acts until the dancers, sweaty, but triumphant, take final bows and leave the stage until a new ballet begins.

Aaron Turpen
An automotive enthusiast for most of his adult life, Aaron has worked in and around the industry in many ways. He is an accredited member of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press (RMAP), the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA), the Texas Auto Writers Association (TAWA), and freelances as a writer and journalist around the Web and in print. You can find his portfolio at