Critics fear Trump will tap auto exec for NHTSA

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Car-safety advocates are worried that President Donald Trump might turn over the keys to the agency charged with regulating the safety of the nation’s automobiles to someone from within the industry’s ranks.

Rosemary Shahan, president of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety group, said she would not be surprised if Trump reaches out to an auto executive to fill the position of National Highway Traffic Safety administrator, vacant since Trump took office in January.

“He has a penchant of appointing people who have been regulated and allowing them to dismantle agencies,” Shahan continued. “You have all these companies who have been under investigations for safety violations recently. I wouldn’t be surprised if he appointed somebody from one of them. It would be consistent with his other appointments.”

No names for candidates appear to be circulating among industry and government insiders in Washington. Several have said it does not appear that filling the position is a high priority for the president, who has yet to make numerous appointments in the government.

But Shahan speculates on one potential candidate: General Motors Co. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra.

“He seems to be very friendly with her,” Shahan said of Trump’s relationship with GM’s chief, noting he has named Barra to a Strategic and Policy Forum that advises him on economic issues and jobs growth, and met with her in Washington on at least two occasions.

The White House declined to comment on the president’s plans for filling the vacancy. GM would not comment on whether Barra would be interested in the regulatory job.

Barra, who became the first woman to lead an automaker in January 2014, is in a strong position at her company, which is posting record profits. She has assembled a cohesive team of executives who all stand to earn substantial bonuses if they remain with the company.

Trump has appointed other high-level business executives to serve in his Cabinet: Former Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson is U.S. secretary of state. Investor Wilbur Ross is commerce secretary. Additionally, Trump selected school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, a West Michigan GOP mega-donor and philanthropist, to be his education secretary. World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon leads the Small Business Administration.

“If he appoints someone from the auto industry, there is going to be a lot of concern on the Hill and among groups like ours,” said former Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook, who was National Highway Traffic Safety administrator during the Carter administration in the late 1970s. “That’s a real conflict of interest. You need someone who is more even-minded about what needs to be done.”

Trump has signed an executive order that requires the federal government to cut two regulations for every one that’s enacted. He has proposed cutting $2.4 billion, or 13 percent, from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s current budget levels as part of his effort to cut non-military spending by $54 billion to support an increase in defense funding. NHTSA is a subsidiary of the transportation department.

Shahan, the safety group president, expressed concern that an industry insider would target regulations that address auto safety.

“He’s on a deregulation kick,” she said. “That’s not comforting. That’s worrisome. Is the new administrator at NHTSA going to deregulate auto safety? He’s so fixated on threats from outside the U.S. that he doesn’t consider that there are threats to us domestically like auto crashes. When he talks about threats to our safety, he’s talking about ISIS.”

NHTSA and other federal agencies have career staffers who remain in place when presidential administrations change. It will likely be hard for Trump to make drastic changes to auto regulations before naming a new top highway safety cop.

Jeff Davis, senior fellow with the independent Eno Center for Transportation think tank in Washington, said Trump is not tardy with his NHTSA choice by recent historical standards. He noted that Obama did not nominate his first NHTSA administrator until nearly 11 months after taking office. President George W. Bush did not nominate his first until five months after moving into the White House. And President Bill Clinton did not nominate his first NHTSA administrator until 13 months after taking office.

Davis said the NHTSA vacancy is not impeding the Trump administration’s ability to police safety regulations.

“Legally, the authority to issue and revise motor vehicle safety standards ... is vested in the secretary of transportation,” he said. “The secretary can delegate or un-delegate that authority to the NHTSA administrator as they see fit, but the important thing is that the regulation-and-recall process can be carried out by the career staff of NHTSA and put into legal effect by the secretary in the absence of a confirmed NHTSA administrator.”

Claybrook, the former NHTSA administrator, said she started working at the agency three months after Jimmy Carter became president. “Agency heads are usually the last ones to get appointed,” she said.

But she said the highway safety agency needs a strong administrator because it has “always been a bit of a stepchild among agencies” and it is “desperately underfunded.”

“You need someone who is talented to fight those battles,” she said of the effort to convince Congress to spend more money on such things as hiring staff to monitor potential safety recalls. “There are quite a number of opportunities to save lives that there is no leadership on right now.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing