NHTSA nominee could face bumpy confirmation path
Washington — President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could face a contentious nomination fight if senators who have been critical of the Trump administration’s response to high-profile self-driving crashes and its handling of the Takata air bag recall decide to pick a fight.
After leaving the position vacant for the first 15 months of his term, Trump in April nominated Deputy Administrator Heidi King to lead the agency on a full-time basis.
King, who came to NHTSA with a private sector background as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital, is scheduled to appear on Wednesday in her first confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
King has been NHTSA’s interim chief since September, and few lawmakers have taken issue with her decisions specifically. But senators spoiling for a fight over broader auto regulation issue might use her as a punching bag.
Already, a pair of Democratic senators with high-profile perches on the Commerce committee have peppered King with questions about unfinished automotive regulations that have been mandated by Congress.
In a letter to King, the senators cited 10 unfinished Obama-era regulations that were mandated by Congress in 2012 and 2015, including side-impact requirements for children’s car seats, backseat seat-belt reminders, electronic recall notifications and enhancements to buses that are intended to reduce the likelihood of ejections and fatalities in crashes.
“For decades, Congress has worked on a bipartisan basis to enact laws to improve automobile safety and reduce vehicle-related fatalities,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote to King. “These acts of Congress cannot have their life-saving impact if they are not actually implemented. We urge you to implement these provisions without delay.”
Blumenthal and Markey, who are frequent critics of the Trump administration’s approach to auto regulation, are likely to use their audience with King to express their concerns.
Trump’s other high-profile recent Cabinet nominees — including his recent picks for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the Veterans Administration, Ronny Jackson — have faced intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Pompeo was confirmed after a bumpy legislative fight; Jackson was forced to withdraw his nomination.
She has won support from safety advocates such as the National Safety Council and Governors Highway Safety Association.
“King’s leadership experience and commitment to safety are much needed at a time when motor vehicle crashes are killing more than 100 people per day in the United States,” the NSC said when King was nominated.
Other safety advocates are concerned her nomination represents a continuation of the Trump’s administration’s hands-off approach to auto regulation.
“Right now, we’re hoping they would move aggressively toward things like (vehicle-to-vehicle) communication, speed restrictions for heavy trucks and side-impacts for car seats,” said David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union and a former acting NHTSA Administrator during the Obama administration.
“There’s multiple other rules that just haven’t gone anywhere. Instead, they seem to be focusing on deregulation and taking away consumer protections.”
Friedman, who ran NHTSA from January 2014 to September 2014, said King will face multiple challenges if confirmed.
“One of the most challenging parts is you have a budget that’s less than $1 billion, and two-thirds goes to good work at the states,” he said. “The rest of it leaves very little to do a big, important job.
“It’s stunning when you compare it to the (Federal Aviation Administration), which has a $16 billion budget. The record of airline fatalities versus highway fatalities speaks for itself. It’s a tough job. You’re trying to reduce 40,000 deaths with a frayed shoestring.”
King has told lawmakers at previous hearings that the Trump administration is committed to boosting auto safety.
“As the automotive transportation landscape is changing at a rapid pace, NHTSA is adapting our mission execution to assure safety while remaining in step with changing technology, addressing new and emerging risks, and encouraging industry innovation, she said during an appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee in February. “Safety is the Department of Transportation’s top priority.”
John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, questions the administration’s seriousness about auto regulation, citing the length of time the president left the position atop NHTSA vacant and the transportation department’s lax approach to most regulations established during the Obama era.
“Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has taken a completely hands-off approach to any safety regulations or standards for the development of autonomous vehicle technology,” Simpson said. “I fear Ms. King likely shares those dangerous views.”