The wildly successful auto industry bailout

Chrysler announced today that it is repaying $7.5 billion to the U.S. government years ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, GM has announced it will hire thousands of new workers in the U.S. after a successful IPO.

The bailout of the U.S. auto industry in 2009 by the Obama administration was very unpopular, but it will go down as one of the shrewdest decisions of President Obama. Letting GM and Chrysler go through a bankruptcy liquidation would have killed thousands of jobs and possibly turned the recession into a depression. Thousands of auto suppliers would have been insolvent immediately, thus creating even more job losses.

Most on the right, including presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, opposed bailing out the auto companies. Mitt Romney even penned an op-ed arguing that we should let Detroit go bankrupt. They look like fools now, and the Democrats just released a preview of how this issue will be highlighted in the 2012 campaign, particularly in the Midwest.

  

Bailing out the auto companies

What should we do about the auto companies? It’s infuriating to think that we would have to bail them out, given the mismanagement over the years. On the other hand, the economy is on the brink, and letting GM go under in this environment could take down the entire economy. Also, given the financial bailout, throwing another $25 – $50 billion to save Detroit doesn’t seem like an outrageous idea.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Many, like Tom Friedman, want to throw out management as part of the deal. This doesn’t make sense. Certainly, Rick Wagoner and the rest of the braintrust at GM made tons of mistakes, but in the past year they have made substantial progress on innovative cars like the Chevy Volt and big changes to their cost structure with the UAW. Without the financial crisis they had a credible path to recovery. Ford is in less trouble, and their new CEO should not be blamed for past mistakes.

The real issue is how many strings should be tied to the bailout. Obama wants to see real progress towards building green cars here in the United States. Investing in this area would have significant short-term and long-term benefits. The cars companies are already moving in this direction, so getting agreement on these points may be possible.

The bigger issue raised by Friedman relates to those in Congress who supported the auto industry and their disastrous policies.

The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.

Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.

This has led to a huge battle currently brewing in the Democratic caucus in the House.

In the first big post-election clash on Capitol Hill, two House heavyweights are battling to lead an influential committee that will have jurisdiction over global warming in the new Congress.

The fight pits California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, a key ally of environmentalists, against Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who has ties to the auto industry. Waxman is trying to oust Dingell as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

While Waxman supporters say they think they’ve got enough votes to prevail, Dingell is fighting hard to keep the position.

In an interview with WJR radio, he called Waxman an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” and said it would be a mistake to have him in charge, particularly with the auto industry struggling.

If Waxman is successful in his attempted coup, it means that two Californians would take leading roles in the contentious debate over global warming. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is the head of the Senate’s environmental committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.

The 82-year-old Dingell, the most senior member of the House, has long resisted higher fuel standards and tighter limits on greenhouse gases.

Dingell needs to go. He’s a slave to the auto lobbyists, and nothing will get done if he’s blocking the move towards alternative fuels in the House. Hopefully, Waxman will prevail.

  

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