Is the US automotive industry headed toward becoming a ward of the federal government? During years, even decades, of cheap energy, the privately owned car was the universally accepted symbol of independence, of the freedom to come and go where and when you pleased. During that time, tens of millions of people could stab a finger in the direction of their respective cars and say, "Thaths America to me."
The idea of the government meddling in the industry producing this symbol would once have been viewed as interfering with the basic principles upon which the nation is founded. Given present realities, however, that attitude is increasingly harder to find.
In its place is a growing, though not yet prevalent, attitude that Washington should be more protective of the auto industry -- down to and including managing research into technological improvements, and constructing tariff -- or at least quoat -- barriers against competitive Japanese and, to a lesser extent, European products.
Just such meddling, and in some minds the cause of the problem, began 15 years ago when Congress established minimum safety standards and established an agency to enforce these standards and make even stiffer ones.
Immediately after this action, Congress also created an agency to establish and enforce pollution-control standards.
And more recently came fuel-economy standards which, as with preceding codes, are growing increasingly rigid.
Since 1966, carmakers have had to juggle federal automobile standards against their own projections of what the market required in the form of a product that will return a profit. In recent months they have dropped all of the balls.
The vital question is whether they can pick them up and start juggling them again, or must this task be turned over to Washington?
Perhaps unfortunately, this question was finally being asked during a presidential election year. Clearly, this resulted in an attempt to get votes and not to deal with the issue on its own merits.
In July, President Carter appeared in the Republican Party's convention city, Detroit, and offered the auto industry a diversified relief package designed to keep the industry alive during its five-year transition to full-scale production of small, more fuel-efficient cars.
The President promised an easing of federal auto emissions, tax relief, financial aid for those communities suffering most from automotive-related layoffs, and the creation of a permanent auto industry committee with members from the car producers, labor, and government to develop solutions to industry problems on a continuing basis.
Mr. Carter failed to promise, however, delivery of immediate action to restrict auto imports.
The United Automobile Workers (UAW) and Ford Motor Company filed a claim with the International Trade Commission (ITC) charging that the unrestricted flow of particularly Japanese imports was wrecking the US auto industry, creating widespread and long-term unemployment among its members.
The ITC rejected the claim earlier this month.
Some time before his success in the Nov. 4 presidential election, GOP nominee Ronald Reagan had said he was opposed to any restriction on auto imports.
Later, however, having had time to assess the size of the vote from unemployed auto workers, he announced to an audience of Chrysler workers in Detroit that "one way or another" it is in the best interest of the Japanese automakers to impede their "deluge" of cars into the United States.
After Mr. Reagan's speech, his economic adviser, Martin Anderson, reasserted that Mr. Reagan favored only "voluntary restraints," but did not elaborate on how the Japanese were to be made to volunteer.
In another change of heart, Mr. Reagan, who had originally opposed the federal bailout of the Chrysler Corporation, later said that the program to ensure funding for the carmaker "was a proper answer."
This stood in marked contrast to a stateemtn of early July to the effect that federal guarantees are the wrong approach. The industry, he said, "simply needs the freedom to compete, unhindered by whimsical, bureaucratic changes in energy, environmental, and safety regulations.
Mr. Reagan, however, is not the only one shifting position on matters affecting the auto industry.
In 1968, the UAW, which now sees excessive environmental and safety regulations as one of the causes for the industry's present plight, was announcing it was joining up with the then fledgling environmental movement and would place on the table in contract negotiations, then about to begin with the carmakers, demands that improvements in environmental emissions from cars be written into the new contracts.
This demand, however, was dropped early in the talks.
The unknown quotient in the problem of whether the government is to expand its control over the industry or move to withdraw from its present level is the US Congress. Each session sees bills introduced that, if passed, would move the government in both directions.
In a grossly oversimplified statement of the situation, conservative elements in both the House and Senate would rescind or at least soften the present levels of emission and safety regulations, while the more liberal factions still identify with the environmentalists who, in 1970, were burying cars in order to symbolize their opposition to the automobile, which they saw as wasteful polluters of the air and killers of man.
These groups still argue for stiffer regulations and more stringent enforcement.
Still another faction in Congress would have the government move into the area of active automotive research, probably the last area of the industry not now subject to direct government control.
Three bills were introduced in the Congress this year which attempted to achieve this goal in one form or another. None of the three was successful, but their sponsors are prepared to try again.
The measure that got the furthest before dying would have provided annual federal funding of $500 million for the consolidation of all federal auto research programs within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Those arguing for the measure claimed that NASA had "a proven track record" of managing projects to advance technology and was free of regulatory responsibility for cars.
After being approved by one House committee, the measure was stopped in the Commerce Committee, where Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan insisted: "Reorganization of the federal government will not help the industry or reduce auto industry unemployment. NASA's successes in space will not necessarily be transferred to motor vehicles.
Many in congress, however, believe Mr. Dingell is wrong; and not a few of these have as constituents some of the 350,000 idled auto workers and the 400, 000 hourly workers of automotive suppliers who have been laid off.
To their thinking, automotive research is far too important to be left to the carmakers, who seem to have a poor track record when it comes to building cars that people will buy in place of imports.
Just why it can be assumed that the government would be able to do a better job is not explained, but despite the absence of an explanation, Congress may soon move in the direction of involving the government in automotive research. Those who vote for such a measure can tell their constituents that they are doing something about the "mess in Detroit."