In Shift, Dingell Steered Toward Fuel Standard

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.

In addition to dealing with Nissan, Dingell also had to rally the other automakers, most of whom were not eager to cut a deal. Automakers complained that the tough fuel efficiency standard, first contained in the Senate version of the bill, would cost tens of billions of dollars and might be technologically impossible to achieve. "Why set a target that . . . we can't meet," one U.S. automaker representative said during negotiations.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and people concerned that U.S. oil imports were compromising national energy security suspected that Dingell was not interested in cutting a deal at all. When Dingell supported tough climate change legislation that had little chance of becoming law this year, many thought it was a tactic to block the energy bill.

Doniger says, however, that Dingell's interest in climate change legislation was sincere and not a ruse. "Mr. Dingell does get global warming," he said.

But Dingell put that aside and shepherded the fuel efficiency provision into the legislation that is now likely to pass. First, he joined a group of House Democrats who put forth a more moderate proposal, with lower targets and "off-ramps" that would allow the Transportation Department to waive the targets if they proved too difficult to meet.

But his bargaining position wasn't helped by a sharp increase in oil prices during the final weeks, bolstering public opinion in favor of higher fuel efficiency targets. And Pelosi had endorsed the tougher Senate version and stood fast.

In the end, the legislation includes the Senate requirement for the automotive fleet to achieve average fuel efficiency of 35 miles a gallon by 2020. It extends, then gradually phases out automaker credits against those targets for producing vehicles that can use fuel with 85 percent ethanol.

At Dingell's urging, it has separate standards for cars and light trucks, which U.S. carmakers said would soften the blow of the higher targets. It would also help protect jobs at some U.S. auto plants, a priority for the United Auto Workers union and another goal of the Dingell coalition.

Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) said if Dingell opposed the final bill, "that would have made it very difficult to vote for it. . . . I will follow him as best I can on automobiles. And in Texas we do like to drive big trucks."

The fuel-standards package is one of the few components of the legislation that is relatively noncontroversial in Congress while having the support of President Bush, who opposes many other parts of the energy bill. Those sections include a $21 billion tax package, a requirement for utilities to use renewable sources for least 15 percent of their electricity, energy efficiency standards for appliances, and a mandate for expanding the use of ethanol and other biofuels.

Dingell has told friends that crafting the compromise was one of the hardest tasks he has undertaken in his 52 years in Congress.

While not all of the auto companies were thrilled to have new standards placed on them, they came to see that working with Dingell was the best way to protect themselves. "Not only were they responsible," Dingell said, "they understood how the winds were blowing."

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company