By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008
With the nation's automotive industry hemorrhaging cash, congressional leaders called on the Bush administration yesterday to offer government assistance to the car companies as part of the Treasury Department's $700 billion emergency rescue program.
The call came one day after General Motors, the nation's largest auto manufacturer, announced another multibillion dollar loss for the third quarter and said it was running out of money fast. Ford, the second-biggest car company, also reported heavy losses. Unless the government steps in, analysts warned, GM could face bankruptcy, endangering the livelihoods of about 100,000 North American autoworkers and hundreds of thousands of others whose jobs depend on the industry.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) asked Paulson to "review the feasibility . . . of providing temporary assistance to the automobile industry during the current financial crisis."
The letter notes that Congress granted Paulson broad discretion to use the bailout money to "restore financial market stability. A healthy automobile manufacturing sector is essential to the restoration of financial market security," the letter continues, as well as to "the overall health of our economy, and the livelihood of the automobile sector's workforce."
If the request is granted, it would expand the federal government's role in private enterprise far beyond the financial sector. Critics have warned that a bailout of GM would attract a long line of other companies to Washington to argue that their survival, too, is critical to the economic health of the country. The move would push the Bush administration to decide winners and losers in yet another huge sector of the economy, and it would force President-elect Barack Obama to manage a complex restructuring of the ailing automotive industry.
The Treasury has so far declined to assist the automakers, which have been devastated by the twin shocks of a collapsing credit market and the sharpest drop in auto sales in more than two decades. But as the news from Detroit has grown increasingly grim, lawmakers from both parties, Michigan officials, auto industry executives and labor leaders have stepped up their campaign for federal aid.
A plan is in the works at the Treasury to use bailout money to take ownership stakes in a wide array of companies beyond the banking sector. But Treasury officials have indicated that participants in its recapitalization program must be financial firms subject to federal regulation. That means GMAC, GM's auto financing arm, may be eligible for quick help, but GM itself may not.
The rescue legislation gives Paulson authority to consider the automakers for future programs, such as auctions to purchase troubled assets. But the Treasury has yet to establish rules for those programs, which means such help could be months away.
Treasury officials declined yesterday to comment directly on the request from Reid and Pelosi.
"We continue to work on a strategy that most effectively deploys the remaining funds to strengthen the financial system and get lending going again," Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli said.
In recent days, top auto industry executives have been making the rounds in Washington, trying to shake loose federal cash from a variety of sources. And there are strong indications that Democrats, newly empowered in Tuesday's election, are inclined to oblige.
Obama and other key Democrats vowed during the campaign to support as much as $50 billion in low-interest loans for the car companies. On Friday, during his first news conference since his election as president, Obama spoke at length about the "hardship" the industry faces and referred to the auto industry as "the backbone of American manufacturing."
Obama's team of economic advisers includes Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and former Michigan congressman David Bonior, who is considered a strong candidate for Labor secretary. With Granholm on stage with him Friday, Obama said his transition team is already working on "policy options to help the auto industry adjust, weather the financial crisis and succeed in producing fuel-efficient cars," either under existing law or through the passage of "additional legislation."
In the meantime, however, the automakers have gotten little but sympathy. Congress recently voted to fund a $25 billion low-interest loan package intended to help the car companies retool their factories to produce fuel-efficient vehicles that meet tough new emissions standards. But that money has been hung up by red tape. Obama and other Democrats have discussed providing another $25 billion in loans, bringing the total federal aid to $50 billion. But unless the Bush administration agrees to work on an economic stimulus package when Congress returns to Washington later this month, that money would have to wait until at least January.
Analysts fear the firms may not be able to hold on that long. GM and Ford posted big losses Friday as they continued to pay out more in salaries and other expenses than they are taking in from sales. GM said it would cut spending and sell some product lines but nonetheless expects to "fall significantly short" of the cash it needs to operate next year. The failure of GM or one of the other Detroit automakers could wipe out 2.5 million jobs and $125 billion in personal income in the first 12 months, according to a report released this week by the Center for Automotive Research.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the auto industry. In 1979, Chrysler nearly went bankrupt and lobbied the government for assistance. A $1.2 billion loan, coupled with deep executive pay cuts and major union concessions, helped turn the troubled company around. Under Lee Iacocca, Chrysler invented its iconic minivan, popularized the SUV and repaid the loan in four years. The government even made money off the deal.
Asked Friday whether future assistance could mirror the Chrysler bailout, GM executives told investors that they consider the Treasury program a more modern means to solving the crisis.
In their letter to Paulson, Reid and Pelosi wrote that Friday's earnings reports "only reaffirm the need for urgent action."
If the Treasury does decide to assist the auto industry, they wrote, its chief executives should be subject to the same "limits on executive compensation" as other participants in the program and should be required to give the government equity stakes in their firms "to provide taxpayers a return on their investment upon the industry's recovery."
Spokesmen for Ford and GM issued statements thanking the lawmakers for their request.
"We appreciate Congress recognizes the urgency to help the auto industry weather this troubled economic period," GM spokesman Greg Martin said. "We hope Congress and the administration can work together to provide immediate aid."
Staff writers David Cho, Kendra Marr and Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.