In Shift, Dingell Steered Toward Fuel Standard

Rep. John Dingell, a champion of the auto industry, agreed to a deal for fuel targets.
Rep. John Dingell, a champion of the auto industry, agreed to a deal for fuel targets. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Congress is on the verge of approving an increase in fuel efficiency standards that automakers have fought for more than two decades, and a central player was the auto industry's fiercest champion, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

Soon after last year's election, which handed control of Congress to pro-environment Democrats, Dingell warned auto industry executives that " 'no' is not good enough" an answer to lawmakers who have wanted for years to require cars to consume less gasoline, according to Dennis B. Fitzgibbons, a top Dingell aide and a former automobile lobbyist.

A year later, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee came to an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that sets a target of 35 miles a gallon for U.S. vehicles by 2020, 40 percent more than current average.

The legislation represents a major setback for the auto industry. But without Dingell's seal of approval, the energy package could have come unraveled, and the automakers' pain might have been greater.

"To have the speaker committed to achieving 35 miles per gallon and to be steadfast in that, she deserves this victory," said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center. "Mr. Dingell deserves credit too for telling the automakers a year ago that they were going to have to accept a mileage improvement. He bargained hard for trying to make it less, but he deserves credit for coming around and agreeing."

Last year, Dingell began to work closely with automakers, the United Auto Workers union as well as auto suppliers and dealers to devise a unified position on how to update the standards without harming the financially challenged industry.

The big automakers, including General Motors, Ford, and Toyota, held a meeting by conference call at least twice a month, and sometimes daily, when action on Capitol Hill required attention. They and the other coalition members, led by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, also talked regularly with Dingell and his staff.

According to participants, the group exchanged information about the latest legislative developments, assigned lobbyists to meet with specific lawmakers and organized letter-writing and e-mail campaigns from auto workers and dealers. The alliance also bought some advertising, one company lobbyist said.

The road was bumpy, however. Nissan, a Japanese car manufacturer with facilities in Mississippi and Tennessee, struck out on its own to lobby Capitol Hill for fuel standards that were in some ways stricter than what other automakers wanted. Nissan's chief legislative champion was Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Senate's second-ranking Republican, along with GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both of Tennessee. Nissan has 15,000 employees in their states.

Dingell and industry lobbyists say the split undermined their ability to shape the legislation.

"They made a lot of work for the industry and for me; they not only had a position that isolated them but was pretty hard to explain," Dingell said. He called that position "self-serving." Lobbyists for other carmakers said they had to beat back Nissan's proposals on the makeup of the fleet that was subject to the new standard and on tax credits for flexible fuel vehicles.

Nissan disagrees. Dominique Thormann, a senior vice president of Nissan North America, said the company decided early to advocate tough fuel-economy standards as part of a company-wide effort to become more eco-friendly. Siding with lawmakers bent on reducing auto emissions, he added, was the best way to become part of their solution. He said Nissan is happy with the legislative outcome.

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