K Street Files: Carmakers Get All Revved Up Over Safety Bill

Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:14pm

The automobile industry continues to put the pedal to the metal in fighting a new vehicle safety bill that carmakers claim may make corporate secrets public, hamper business and be a boon for the trial bar.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist likened provisions in the pending Motor Vehicle Safety Act to publishing heavily guarded trade secrets on the Internet. The Senate Commerce Committee today is holding a hearing on the bill, which would “establish new automobile safety standards [and] make better motor vehicle safety information available to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the public.”

Bergquist’s coalition includes domestic producers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, as well as foreign automobile manufacturers Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

Earlier this year, Toyota drew scrutiny from lawmakers after allegations surfaced that its cars were unintentionally accelerating, prompting a lobbying blitz by the Japanese company and overtures by Members that car companies need to be more forthright with how their vehicles work. Instead, carmakers argue that their blueprints would wind up on the Internet, in plain view of rival companies and plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The bill was introduced in early May by Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Although carmakers initially supported a handful of the legislation’s proposals, Bergquist said, an all-out battle is being waged over the remaining language.

“When the Senate came out with its bill, I characterized it as a legislative vehicle fully loaded with all of the options,” Bergquist said. “We thought there were many provisions that were written to empower lawyers, not engineers. In particular, it was making public a lot of information that would be considered confidential business information.”

Credit Score Wars

FICO, the analytics company that computes consumer credit scores, is setting up a downtown presence for the first time. According to Senate lobbying records, the Minnesota company hired the Bockorny Group on May 3 to lobby Members on the financial services regulatory reform bill, which is headed for a cloture vote today.

“We were finding that our little voice from the outside wasn’t getting heard,” FICO spokesman Craig Watts said.

In addition to computing consumer credit scores — those pesky numbers, ranging from 300 to 850, that banks use to determine creditworthiness — Watts’ company also designs and sells computer modeling tools to companies.

But what’s finally bringing the company to Washington, D.C., Watts said, is a possible amendment to the bill that could encourage low-cost competition in its marketplace. In particular, if the mandate winds up in the final bill, FICO wants lawmakers to tighten language defining what types of companies can provide free credit reports to consumers.

“For the past decade, we’ve been providing scores to consumers,” Watts said. “There was no determination as to which kind of scores would be given free to consumers. … You want to give consumers value, and a lot of imitators have popped up.”

Mining Disaster to Be Probed

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico bumped the deadly West Virginia coal mining incident off the Congressional hearing schedule. But on Thursday, the coal mining disaster, in which 29 men were killed, will once again be front and center when top company and union officials testify before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Scheduled to appear are Don Blankenship, the combative CEO of Massey Energy, which owns the coal mine, and company critic Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America. Also testifying will be Joseph Main, the assistant secretary of Labor for mine safety and health, an office that has been criticized for not being more vigilant in policing for mine safety problems.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D), the son of an Iowa coal miner, is considering legislation that would beef up mine safety rules.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Byrd
(D-W.Va.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who grew up in coal country, has called for more federal funding to reduce the backlog of appeals at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. Mary Lu Jordan, who chairs that commission, will also be at Thursday’s hearing, at 2 p.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Bennett Roth contributed to this report.

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