February 21, 2009 at 1:00 am

Auto task force taking shape

Cabinet members, senior advisers and staff to tackle the restructuring of GM and Chrysler.

WASHINGTON -- The White House said Friday its 10-member Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry would be comprised of cabinet members and other top officials, but senior policy aides would handle much of the day-to-day work.

The 10 senior aides advising the task force include economists, professors and former Obama campaign aides who are already hard at work reviewing a number of issues related to the restructuring of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.

In restructuring plans submitted to the government this week, the automakers sought up to $21.6 billion in more aid on top of the $17.4 billion they've received to date. They face an urgent March 31 deadline to win concessions from their unions and bondholders and to prove their viability or the government could recall the loans. GM and Chrysler also warn they need billions next month to avoid bankruptcy.

The co-chairs of the task force, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, held the first task force meeting at the Treasury Department Friday.

They directed the 10 policy advisers at the meeting to "conduct additional analysis and form initial recommendations" that will be presented at a cabinet-level meeting of the task force that is expected as early as next week.

The two "emphasized the urgency of the issues affecting the auto industry and the need for fundamental restructuring to achieve long-term viability," the Treasury Department said.

The task force includes the secretaries of Transportation, Commerce, Labor, Energy, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change and the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was one of just 32 House Republicans who voted in favor of a $25 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler in December. The bill died in the Senate, and President Bush stepped in. LaHood criticized Detroit's Big Three CEOs for traveling to hearings last year in corporate jets.

Other cabinet officials have been harshly critical of the auto industry in the past. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson once criticized the Bush administration's rejection of an effort by California and other states to set their own emissions limits, a move automakers oppose as too costly.

"When it comes to the auto industry, the EPA apparently is the Emissions Permissions Agency," Jackson said in 2007.

Two task force slots remain open. Obama's labor secretary nominee, Hilda Solis, has yet to be confirmed amid Republican opposition. The California congresswoman has close ties to organized labor. Her mother was a UAW member while working at a Mattel factory, and Solis was a board member of American Rights at Work, a pro-union group founded by former Michigan congressman David Bonior.

Gerald Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor and former American Motors Corp. chairman, said the task force and staff could prove unwieldy. He noted officials "may seek to protect their turf and seek to accomplish their own aims." He joined Michigan politicians in criticizing the administration for not including anyone with automotive experience.

The staff designees include: Diana Farrell, deputy director of National Economic Council and a former McKinsey consultant; Gene Sperling, counselor to the Treasury Secretary; Jared Bernstein, chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden; and Joan DeBoer, chief of staff at the Transportation Department.

Sperling, a top adviser to Geithner, was a longtime Clinton administration official, serving four years as a White House economic aide. He recently defended UAW officials from conservative demands that any help for automakers come with a requirement for drastic wage and benefit cuts.

Other designees:

  • Lisa Heinzerling, senior climate policy council to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The Georgetown law professor represented California and other states before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case in which the court said the states have the authority to set their own carbon emissions limits.

  • Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist, was one of the Obama campaign's top economic advisers even after the Clinton campaign criticized him for reportedly telling Canadian officials that Obama's criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement was campaign rhetoric. In November, he told CBS's "Face the Nation" that an auto industry collapse would be "quite harrowing, really."

  • Heather Zichal, a former Obama campaign aide, is deputy director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change.

  • Rick Wade, acting chief of staff at the Commerce Department, was a senior campaign adviser. He was in South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges' Cabinet.

  • Edward Montgomery, an economist and senior adviser in the Department of Labor, is a former Clinton-era Labor Department official who taught briefly in the 1980s at Michigan State University. He has advocated for stronger action to protect manufacturing workers from the effects of international trade.

  • Dan Utech, an assistant to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is a former Senate staffer who was a top energy adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

    The team includes several other consultants and advisers, including Ron Bloom, a special assistant to the United Steelworkers president. He is a special adviser to the Treasury on auto issues and leads the effort to help hammer out concessions between automakers, the UAW and the companies' bondholders necessary to prove the companies' viability.