June 6, 2013 at 9:00 am

Dingell, a 'fierce defender' of automakers, helped industry evolve

Through crises and legislative pressure, rep offered support

Rep. John Dingell, right, chats with Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn., during a meeting May 1, 1979, of a House panel. Dingell was acting as House manager of President Carter’s rationing proposal while Moffett was leading a group trying to block decontrol of oil prices. (Associated Press)

Washington — A cornerstone of Rep. John Dingell's57years in Congress has been his defense of the U.S. auto industry — supporting the millions of constituents and others outside his district who build cars and parts or depend on the business.

Dingell has become the industry's go-to guy, and his most notable efforts came in 1979 and 2008-09. He first aided Chrysler Corp. in avoiding extinction by getting a government loan and later helped General Motors and Chrysler avoid liquidation and win more than $60 billion in government bailouts.

A collapse of the U.S. auto industry in 2008 could have led to another Depression, the Dearborn Democrat says.

"Look, I lived through the Depression with my dad when he was in Congress," Dingell said in a recent interview. "I spent much of my life reading about that Depression, and reading about what they had to do to bring us out of it and see that we didn't have another one."

In August 2008, he called Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, before 7 a.m. to begin mounting a campaign to save the two Detroit automakers.

"The proof is in the pudding," Upton says, noting both GM and Chrysler are now profitable and adding jobs. "It would have been 'Turn out the lights and leave' had we not saved them — 40 percent unemployment. It would have been just no return for Michigan."

Fellow Democrats also agree that Dingell has been crucial onautos. "He is a fierce defender, working whatever number of hours, making whatever number of phone calls that he needed to make in order to be able to have the right thing happen for the industry and for our people," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

Dingell has clashed repeatedly with environmentalists and Democratic colleagues over emissions standards, safety requirements and other auto legislation. His ardent defense of the industry prompted the late U.S. Rep. Ed Madigan, R-Ill.,to dub him "Tailpipe Johnny."

But the congressman also says he prodded automakers to improve.

"I pushed for the highest technically achievable standards, but I also pushed for them in a way that did not destroy the auto industry," Dingell said. "You'll find we still got the best standards on automobile fuel efficiency and clean air in the world. I don't have any shame on that."

In early 2007 — with the clout of environmentalists on the rise and the industry's clout on the decline in Washington — Dingell visited the Big Three CEOs in their Michigan offices to deliver a message: It was time to make a deal to hike fuel efficiency standards, whether they liked it or not.

That December, Dingell reached agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on a bill raising fuel efficiency standards at least 40 percent to a fleetwide 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The Obama administration ultimately reached a deal to boost requirements to 54.5 mpg by 2025 — with Dingell trying to ensure the higher mileage mandate didn't harm automakers.

But the standards are still expected to cost automakers about$200 billion through 2025.

"John's unwavering support and tough love has been extremely important to the auto industry and American manufacturing," Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said. "He has challenged us to do more, and advocated for us when times were tough."

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, says Dingell has been a singular force — but says he delayed emissions regulations and has been a "mixed bag for the environment" on autos.

"No one's had the clout in both protecting the auto industry and trying to steer it toward a thriving future," O'Donnell said.

Dingell fought mandatory air bags in the late 1970s. He supported bills to require more American content in vehicles. He helped write a compromise bill on auto recall policy in 2000, after the deaths of more 270 people linked to Firestone tires primarily on Ford Explorers.

As recently as last year, Dingell helped automakers stave off a proposed bill that would have boosted maximum fines for delaying recalls to $250 million — up from $17 million. Instead, Congress boosted the maximum finesto $35 million and dropped nearly all of the proposed safety mandates.

But he hasn't done it alone. Backed by the United Auto Workers union and Midwestern members of Congress, Dingell crafted coalitions — "union, dealers, suppliers and companies," he says — to beat back attempts at "needless overregulation" of the auto industry.

Dingell wants Americans to have the freedom to buy the vehicles they want, and not be forced into smaller vehicles.

"This is still a free nation where people buy what they want and where the government doesn't tell them what they can buy," he said.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com.

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On May 25, 1993, Rep. John Dingell checks out a new Jeep Cherokee Sport at ... (Bill Perry / Special to The Detroit News)