Congress is rediscovering its bark as a consumer watchdog. Now, consumer activists say they're hoping that the human toll of shredded radial tires will help it find its bite.
After a legislative session marked by harsh partisanship, lawmakers found themselves on the same page, facing off with executives from Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. and Ford Motor Co. over reports of mounting fatalities from defective tires.
It's a classic setting that shows legislators at their photo-op finest - grilling corporate executives under television lights with questions such as: What did you know? When did you know it?
Consumer advocates say the case also provides an unexpected opportunity to strengthen the government's capacity to safeguard the public from faulty products.
"This is a great opportunity to strengthen the tire-safety laws, and to strengthen the law-enforcement capability by putting a criminal penalty in the 1966 Motor Vehicle Safety Act," says longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
But he cautions that this window of opportunity could close quickly. "I will guarantee you that if Congress does not enact the criminal penalties before it leaves office, the tire- and auto-industry lobbyists will stop the Congress the next year from acting."
Until this week's hearings, many activists worried that consumer-protection issues were being buried on Capitol Hill.
In June, the House sidelined a 10-year effort to develop an ergonomics standard to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries. And language in a pending Senate appropriations bill explicitly forbids the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from publishing data predicting the frequency of rollovers in vehicles. Rollovers are a leading cause of fatalities in popular sport-utility vehicles.
The publicity surrounding the Firestone tire recall is putting the issue of consumer protection squarely back on the political agenda. In questions to witnesses on Wednesday, legislators on both sides of the aisle focused on why it took Firestone, Ford, and the government so long to recognize that there was a problem.
"It seems to me that alarm bells were ringing, but that the people in a position to do something weren't listening," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama, as he opened subcommittee hearings on the issue.
What was known?
Testimony and documents released at the hearing signaled that claims against Firestone for defective tires spiked around 1996. That same year, Ford began replacing Firestone tires in a dozen foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Neither corporation was required to report these developments to US regulators, and did not. At the same time, NHTSA failed to respond to other indications of problems. An analyst at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ill., began sending NHTSA information about potential claim trends involving Firestone tires as early as July 1998.
Lawmakers and consumer groups say the agency should have responded more promptly to early warning signals. They also urge expanding regulatory capacity to better respond to future cases. These include:
*Updating 1966 tire-safety standards that predate the development of the radial tire. Dr. Bailey says that NHTSA began such a project in the early 1980s, but that it was set aside with Reagan budget cuts.
*Legislating heavier fines and even criminal penalties for failure to report product defects. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania has proposed a charge of second-degree murder for corporate officials who knew of but did not disclose potentially deadly product defects.
*Requiring manufacturers to share claims and overseas recall information with US regulators.
The high profile of this week's hearings could give lawmakers more leverage to dislodge anti-consumer riders on pending appropriations bills.
"We now might have a chance to knock the rollover rider out of the appropriation bill because of this issue," said a House staff member working on the Firestone recall.
"This issue is tailor-made for Congress," adds another staffer. "There's a real impact on the American public that they can feel and see. That gets the members engaged."
Back to the '60s
Automotive safety is the issue that launched the consumer rights movement in the 1960s. A year after Mr. Nader's 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," Congress passed a law setting minimum safety standards for the auto industry. Activists say it could relaunch the movement this fall.
"We're seeing a lot of press, and people are more interested in holding corporations accountable. Automobile safety is a huge issue for us," says Frank Clemente, director of the Washington-based Congress Watch.
"This is not the end of this investigation. This is just the beginning," says Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, who chaired this week's hearings. He added that the issue is a personal concern, as he is driving home in a Ford Explorer on recalled tires.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society