Did A Federal Safety Agency Help General Motors Avoid A Recall?

As details emerge about GM's handling of an ignition switch recall, a question is raised again: What is the relationship between regulators and the regulated, and the revolving door between the two?

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We've heard a lot this week from the chief executive of General Motors. Mary Barra had to testify about defective cars that GM failed to recall for years - for a decade, in fact. The company was aware of the defect linked to at least 13 fatal crashes. But one question has not come up at congressional hearings over this matter. It's the question of whether the federal agency responsible for auto safety actually helped the carmaker to avoid a recall. Similar questions have been raised in the past. Listen, now, to what it sounded like when it did come up before Congress. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It was just over four years ago that Toyota sat in the congressional hearing hot seat. Fatal episodes of unintended acceleration were traced to bad gas pedal designs in its best-selling Camry sedan. But there was a second hot seat at the hearing for NHTSA, the National Highway Transportation Administration. Two of its employees had moved on to Toyota - in Washington speak, had gone through the revolving door - and then, according to company documents, they had helped Toyota persuade NHTSA to limit its investigation. California Sen. Barbara Boxer zeroed in on the revolving door issue.

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SEN. BARBARA BOXER: I believe there was pressure put on NHTSA from people who had too close a relationship. I think it's part of the problem.

OVERBY: Other senators pressed attack on connections between the federal agency and the auto industry it oversees. The DOT inspector general later reported to Congress that NHTSA complied with federal revolving door laws. He counted 16 former NHTSA employees - including four former administrators - then working in the industry; but he reported no evidence of undue influence in any safety defect investigations, so nothing happened. And this isn't the only example of NHTSA's revolving door. Now, the agency points out that federal ethics laws and Obama administration policy prevent former employees from getting involved in any cases they had worked on at NHTSA. But watchdog groups say the effect of the revolving door can be subtle.

CLARENCE DITLOW: What you're not going to find are footprints where they did something illegal.

OVERBY: Clarence Ditlow is director of the Center for Auto Safety, a group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

DITLOW: They are bringing their sensitivities from industry when they come to NHTSA, and then they're going back to industry and are taking that knowledge that they gained of how NHTSA works.

OVERBY: Former NHTSA researcher Lou Lombardo monitors the agency's crash safety work. He says the revolving door has a carrot-and-stick effect, giving the automakers a big presence within the agency.

LOU LOMBARDO: The agency is filled with lots of good people still, but they dare not step on those big toes.

OVERBY: That's the stick. The carrot comes when you leave the regulator to go to the work for the regulated.

LOMBARDO: Well, maybe you can go out and make a fortune.

OVERBY: Paul Light is professor of public service at New York University. He studied the issue for a long time. He says NHTSA, environmental agencies and financial regulators are especially susceptible to revolving door problems. And the traffic speeds up at the end of a presidential administration.

PAUL LIGHT: A revolving door at this point in the Obama administration, with only a little more than two years left, is spinning as fast as it does at Macy's during the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

OVERBY: In other words, it's a good time for employees to move on while they've still connections and influence. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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