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Washington — National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind on Tuesday sounded the alarm after a House panel approved a spending bill that doesn’t boost the agency’s budget to investigate auto safety defects.

Last week, a Republican-led House appropriations subcommittee approved a spending bill that doesn’t adopt the Obama administration’s request to triple NHTSA’s defect budget and double staffing. It essentially held the agency’s budget at the current level.

“We’re pretty concerned. You can’t keep talking about wanting to make things safer and more efficient,” Rosekind said in an interview Tuesday on the sidelines of an event at an elementary school. “We’re going to do everything we can internally... but without certain resources we’re not going to get the level (of performance) that everyone expects.”

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the 2016 $55.3 billion Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill next week.

Rosekind noted that NHTSA last year went from 45,000 complaints to 80,000 complaints received — and still has a staff of nine to review them. NHTSA also is facing a series of time-consuming probes, including the recall of more than 17 million vehicles for defective Takata air bags that could explode and project metal fragments into vehicles that are linked to at least six deaths at least 104 injuries.

President Barack Obama proposed tripling NHTSA’s budget for its Office of Defects Investigation to $31 million.

The budget proposal came after members of Congress criticized NHTSA in the wake of General Motors Co.’s delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches that are linked to 97 deaths and 179 injuries. Staffing on NHTSA’s defects team has remained flat for a decade. Under the Obama administration proposal, that team would initially rise from 28 to 56.5 full-time equivalent positions.

But auto safety issues are getting less attention and Congress has shown little interest in acting on the issue. Last week, the Senate approved a bill to offer payments to auto industry whistleblowers, but hasn’t acted on broader auto safety measure. The House has taken no action on auto safety bills this year. “If (auto safety) is not in the headlines, people are going to focus on other things. I think that’s a concern,” Rosekind said.

NHTSA wants to add 57 people to a staff of more than 100, including a mathematician, two statisticians, 16 engineers and four investigators.

In February, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the Commerce Committee, said NHTSA needs reforms — but wasn’t sure a budget increase is necessary. “We think there are ways, too, that you could reform and accomplish some things (without higher funding),” Thune said.

Thune said NHTSA has a critical role. “We think the mission of the agency is an awfully important one — particularly given the fact that we’ve had record numbers of recalls last year,” he said.

Last year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on GM’s delayed recall and exploding air bags made by Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. Committee chairman Rep. Frep Upton, R-St. Joseph, said in July that he expected to propose legislation in 2015 on auto safety reforms. He told The Detroit News

But now it is not clear what will happen. In a written statement released by his office earlier this year, Upton said he is awaiting a report from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General on NHTSA’s conduct: “While it’s not clear that a massive shake-up of our laws and regulators is necessary, the failures we exposed last year will be addressed, and we look forward to working with the new NHTSA head in that effort.”

That report could come out in the coming weeks.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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