Bill aims to close 'revolving door' between automakers, traffic safety agency

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; 3:33 PM

Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced legislation Wednesday to reduce the "revolving door" between government service and automobile companies, which she said allows the automakers to have "undue influence" on actions by the agency that regulates them.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Integrity Employment Act would bar former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration employees for three years from working for automakers in any capacity that requires written or oral communication with the agency.

The restrictions would apply to high-ranking NHTSA officials and all employees with the agency who worked with any motor vehicle safety-related program in their final year on the job.

"I am deeply concerned about the all-to-cozy relationship between former NHTSA officials and the auto industry," Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "My legislation would address this 'revolving door' by preventing automakers from having undue influence on agency decisions."

The issue came up repeatedly during recent congressional hearings, when lawmakers learned that former NHTSA employees now working for Toyota Motor Corp. successfully negotiated limitations on the scope of federal probes. At least one recall was limited, with Toyota officials later boasting that the negotiations saved the company $100 million, records show.

Boxer also cited a recent analysis done by The Washington Post that found 33 former NHTSA officials now playing leading roles in helping carmakers handle federal investigations of auto defects. Many of the former NHTSA employees also work as attorneys and lobbyists for the auto industry.

Julia Piscitelli, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which oversees the NHTSA, said the department "looks forward to working with Congress" on the revolving-door issue and legislative solutions. She pointed out that the Obama administration has addressed potential revolving-door issues within his administration by banning political appointees, through executive order, from lobbying the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration. The executive order also prohibits senior appointees who leave government from contacting employees of their former agency about official business from one to two years.

Under the legislation introduced by Boxer, individuals who violate the revolving-door prohibition would be subject to current penalties of $55,000 set under government-wide ethics laws. Manufacturers would also be subject to civil penalties, including fines of $100,000 or more.

Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen, joined other auto safety advocates in expressing support for the bill. "An extraordinary number of top-level staff at NHTSA and technical staff have gone to work for automakers," Claybrook said in an interview. "It undermines the integrity of the agency and creates a situation where new employees may try to please the industry with the hope of future employment."

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