General Motors (GM) Chief Executive Mary Barra may be sweating under the questioning of the House Energy and Commerce Committee as she tries to explain why the automaker failed for more than a decade to address ignition switch defects that may be responsible for more than 13 deaths. But she may have less to fear than many might imagine.
According to OpenSecrets.org, GM has donated to more than 40 percent of the committee members in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, or about $72,000. The company's political action committee and employees have donated $74,000 to Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Republican from GM's home state of Michigan, over the course of his career. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who's the longest-serving House member ever and one of the auto industry's fiercest defenders, has received more than $304,000. His wife, Debbie, has worked for GM for more than 30 years. Dingell has said he'll retire after his current term expires.
The industry's influence in Washington goes beyond political donations. Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Strickland joined law firm Venable as a partner focusing on consumer protection issues. Venable has many auto industry clients. Strickland's successor at NHTSA, David Friedman, has told Congress that GM withheld critical information about the defective ignition switches.
Barra, who took charge of North America's largest automaker earlier this year, has been undergoing a baptism by fire ever since the story emerged of GM's botched response to the defect. The company was pilloried by crisis communications experts for its slow, legalistic response to the problem that made regulators and members of Congress irate.
Barra's efforts have improved that record of late, saying that the company is "deeply sorry" for what happened. But GM is hardly in the clear.
Two congressional committees and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating GM's handling of the defect. Plus, it faces civil suits, and Reuters reported today that some people who settled earlier suits may reopen their cases. GM has hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg, best known for work in high-profile cases such as the BP oil spill and the September 11 terrorist attacks.
GM has recalled about 2.6 million cars for faulty ignition switches, plus millions more this year for a variety of defects.