How John Dingell championed auto industry

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — John Dingell championed the auto industry in Congress for nearly six decades, nudging Detroit executives to embrace stricter emission standards while lining up support when they needed taxpayer-funded bailouts to survive. 

Dingell, the industry’s go-to guy, mounted his most notable efforts in 1979 and 2008-09.

He first helped Chrysler Corp. survive by getting a government loan that was repaid early and three decades later aided General Motors and Chrysler to 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 said.

“Look, I lived through the Depression with my dad when he was in Congress,” Dingell said in an interview while still in Congress.

“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 said, noting both GM and Chrysler are now profitable.

GM head Dan Ackerson, right, talks with U.S. representatives, from left, Sander Levin, John Dingell, Steny Hoyer at the North Amerfican International Auto Show in Detroit  Jan. 10, 2011.

“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.”

All told, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV were recipients of $51 billion and $12.5 billion, respectively, in federal largess in 2008 and 2009.

The bailouts, which were controversial when Dingell pushed them through, have hung over congressional interactions with the auto industry, most recently when GM said it was idling plants in four states. Critics argued taxpayers employees deserved better treatment after taxpayers helped save the automaker.

GM and Chrysler repaid their loans, but the federal government lost $11.2 billion when it sold off its shares of GM stock that it received in exchange for the loans.   

Fellow Democrats also agreed that Dingell was crucial on autos.

“He was 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 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-Illinois, to dub him “Tailpipe Johnny.”

But the congressman said 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 influence on the decline in Washington — Dingell visited the Big Three chief executives 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 an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, on a bill raising fuel efficiency standards at least 40 percent to a fleetwide 35 mpg 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.

Rep. John Dingell checks out a new Jeep Cherokee Sport at the "Drive American Quality" exhibit at the Mall in Washington, May 25, 1993.

The Trump administration has moved to roll back the standards, which were expected to cost automakers about $200 billion through 2025.

Under the proposed changes, the gas mileage mandate will be frozen after the 2020 model year, when automakers will be required to build fleets averaging about 39 mpg fleetwide.

The Trump administration has also indicated the federal government could revoke a longstanding waiver allowing California and other states to set their own stricter auto emissions standards.

If this occurs, it would set up a likely legal fight that will have to major consequences for the very car buyers Dingell sought to protect from sticker shock.

“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.”

Dingell has been was a singular force, said Frank O’Donnell, former president of Clean Air Watch. But the congressman delayed emissions regulations and was a “mixed bag for the environment” on autos, he said.

“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 were linked to Firestone tires primarily on Ford Explorers.

United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser, right, shakes hands with Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, prior to a hearing Jan. 24, 1983 on the loss of health benefits due to unemployment.

As recently as 2014, 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 fines to $35 million and dropped nearly all of the proposed safety mandates.

But he didn’t do it alone. Backed by the United Auto Workers union and Midwestern members of Congress, Dingell crafted coalitions — “union, dealers, suppliers and companies,” he said — to beat back attempts at what he considered placing onerous burdens on the auto industry.

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

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

Contribution by David Shepardson, former Detroit News staff writer.