New GM CEO To Face Congressional Panels Over Delayed Recall

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra faces a tough week of testimony before congressional committees about defective ignition switches linked to 13 deaths.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

General Motors' CEO Mary Barra takes questions in Washington this week. She'll be asked about a defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths and 30 injuries. General Motors has known about it since at least 2004, but only ordered a recall last month.

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The House subcommittee examining the matter said on Sunday that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also knew about the issue and failed to investigate. The agency says there wasn't enough data to do so.

INSKEEP: The head of the agency will testify along with Mary Barra. Though she's been in charge only two and a half months, it falls to her to answer the question of why GM delayed the recall for a decade. Michigan radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Liz Warners lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She's a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit. She has a car.

LIZ WARNERS: I own a 2005 Saturn Ion.

SAMILTON: Warner's coupe is among 2.2 million cars being recalled in the U.S. for a potentially deadly defect. The ignition switch can abruptly turn off the car, disabling the power steering and the airbags. Warners won't be able to get the car fixed for several weeks or even months, after replacement parts start arriving at dealerships.

WARNERS: I debate if I should go places sometimes if it's a little farther trip, because I don't want to cause any more stress or opportunities for failure.

SAMILTON: The Ion has yet to turn off on her. So far, so good. But Warners knows the ignition can switch off if the car is jarred. And this was a bad winter for potholes.

WARNERS: Grand Rapids is riddled with them right now. And I live and work downtown and it's been rough. So yeah, now I'm extra concerned about them.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMILTON: The car can also turn off if there is too much weight on the key ring, so owners are supposed to take all the extra stuff off the ring.

Last week, GM released a series of short videos featuring the company's new CEO Mary Barra, to answer some of the most common questions people about the recall. In one, Barra says she pressed her engineers about whether the recalled cars are safe to drive.

MARY BARRA: The very first question I asked is: Would you let your family, your spouse, your children, drive these vehicles in this condition. And they said yes.

SAMILTON: But appearing in videos is one thing. Testifying before Congress is another. There's a reason it's called the hot seat. Just ask former GM CEO Rick Wagoner. He asked Congress for a bailout for the company in 2008. This is former Representative Paul Kanjorski during that hearing.

PAUL KANJORSKI: Maybe I'm dense or something, Mr. Wagoner, I don't quite understand what the hell you just told me. Can you just tell me in absolute terms, how much money you need to survive?

SAMILTON: Let's just say, it did not go well.

RICK WAGONER: Congressman, it's going to depend on what happens with suppliers and markets.

KANJORSKI: I understand that. Give me your worst case scenario.

WAGONER: The worse case scenario is the amount of the money would be significant. I mean we have suppliers...

KANJORSKI: What is significant?

SAMILTON: Now, maybe Wagoner didn't talk to a testifying pro beforehand, like former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who's lost track of how many times he's testified. His advice for Barra...

RAY LAHOOD: You have to be frank. You have to be honest.

SAMILTON: Don't go into it cold.

LAHOOD: I practiced before a panel of people where they would put the most controversial, the toughest questions before me, and I would have to answer them.

SAMILTON: And the last piece of advice...

LAHOOD: A witness before Congress should look at it as an opportunity to tell their story, to tell their side of it.

SAMILTON: Barra does have some positive messages to convey: How GM is overhauling its recall procedures; how the company is re-committing itself to safety so nothing like this happens again. Unfortunately, with multiple investigations ongoing or just starting, she may not be able to answer the toughest question of all - the one that both politicians and people like Liz Warners are asking.

WARNERS: When I hear they kept it secret for a while, it makes me wonder about how concerned they are about their customers' safety, which is a turnoff. You know? So I would just ask the reasoning for not giving the information out right away.

SAMILTON: At least, Barra won't be the only one being asked tough questions. David Friedman, interim director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will testify, too. He'll be asked how and why his agency let the many complaints about the defective switch slip through the cracks for 10 years.

SAMILTON: For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

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INSKEEP: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we have complete time line of the ignition switch problems and the eventual recall. Also, we'll ask how it fits into the context of GM's bankruptcy and government bailout.

We're glad you've started your day with us here on MORNING EDITION. You can continue following this program throughout the day. We're on social media. You can find us on Facebook and on Twitter. We're @morningedition and @nprinskeep and @nprgreene.

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