June 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Daniel Howes

Meddling with GM? Not us, feds say

Don't know what's more laughable: federal officials, including a president of the United States, who say they don't want to run General Motors Corp. but do. Or a GM CEO who denies altering business decisions under political duress but does.

Bankrupt GM is getting both.

Thursday, CEO Fritz Henderson emerged from a meeting with President Barack Obama's auto task force to confirm GM would soon make its call on which endangered plant -- including one in Michigan -- it will use to build a new small car. This would be the car it planned to import from China until the United Auto Workers pressed the task force to urge GM to reconsider.

And Henderson, among the sharpest minds you'll find in the global auto industry, denied GM reversed plans to close a parts warehouse in Boston under pressure from Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. This would be the committee whose members harangued Henderson's predecessor in two ugly hearings last year.

If this isn't world-class politicking-turned-meddling, what is it?

The capper: GM's CEO and the task force spent a portion of their latest confab mulling the "culture" of GM and ways to change it, a fair point if you know anything about GM's culture. But it's also a clear indication of just how deeply the people who don't "want to run GM" are pushing themselves to do just that with their latest investment.

Could we end the fiction, please? Could we pay attention to what the politicians and the business leaders do -- the calls, the meetings and the decisions that follow them -- instead of blindly accepting what they say, mostly because they don't want the nationalization of GM to be called what it is?

The White House, key members of Congress and the president's investment-banker agents on the auto task force are undeniably in the car business, calling shots on plants, products, restructuring, a new chairman and a carefully selected slate of would-be directors for a reconstituted board.

Staunch defenders of "the taxpayers," even if they're nothing of the sort, will dissent. Why shouldn't the feds exert oversight, considering they're into GM and its workout for a cool $50 billion? Why shouldn't that entitle Congressman Frank, scourge of any CEO making more than $100,000, to strong-arm GM into "rethinking" the closing of a measly warehouse?

Well, for starters, they say they don't want to run GM. But they do. They say they don't know the car business. But they act like they do. Some of them, particularly southern Republicans, say GM should go bankrupt but they don't want it to cut dealerships when it does.

Thursday, GM began notifying dealers that it would it cease production of the 2010 Chevrolet Malibu hybrid sedan because of a bloated inventory of '09 models sitting on lots. Couldn't have something to do with gas prices the past six months, could it?

How long 'til some member of Congress from California gets on the blower to the RenCen and says the office crystal ball predicts oil at $120 a barrel and lines for hybrids as far as the eye can see?

Only business illiterates and romantic dreamers (often one and the same) would seriously accept the notion that politicians and regulators are better equipped to run a global car company than people -- at GM or Chrysler or Fiat -- who have been doing it for 30 years or more on multiple continents in multiple languages.

Politicians know politics -- their politics. Frank fights for Boston. Californians with names like Pelosi, Waxman and Boxer push the environmental agenda. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker leads the Republican advance against GM and the UAW then pleads for GM to award its small car to a UAW-represented plant in tiny Spring Hill.

But GM will run GM, right? Right, whatever you say.

dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Catch him Fridays with Paul W. Smith on 760-WJR.

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