The auto industry and the government, antagonists for 14 years, have formed an alliance for survival that appears unlike any other in the history of U.S. business.
The new auto industry committee annnounced by President Carter here Tuesday will involve leaders of U.S. automakers, the United Auto Workers and government regulatory agencies in planning a three-year recovery for the industry.
The president's breif announcement of a new "close-knit, permament relationship" was thin on details, but White House aides said they hope a pattern has been set for close cooperation to protect and strengthen vital U.S. industries.
"We consider this the first part of a national industrial policy," said chief White House domestic adviser Stuart Eizenstat.
The government actions announced Tuesday after a two-month study were termed a small but significant first step by industry and UAW leaders. Carter called for faster investigation of the impact of Japanese imports, which could lead to trade restrictions against Japan later this year.
A few environmental regulations were relaxed, and government aid was promised to car dealers and communities hard-hit by auto plant closings.
Symbolically, the announcement seems a good deal more than a single step. The alliance brings the United States closer to the kind of national industrial strategies pursued in Japan and Europe and farther from the cherished, if exaggerated, image of a U.S. free-enterprise system far removed from government involvement.
We have taken a page from Japan's book," said Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca.
After 14 years of contentious debate over safety, pollution and mileage regulation, the government now shares responsibility for the industry's recovery. The common goal now is a five-fold increase in production of small U.S.-made cars by 1983 to push back auto imports.
Just last March, the Carter administration had turned down the auto industry's appeal for protection against Japanese imports, and high-ranking administration officials privately blamed Detroit for digging its own grave.
The auto sales collapsed, federal payments to unemployed auto workers shot upward and the admnistration was confronted with a sick industry, not just a single threatened company -- Chrysler Corp.
Planning for an auto-industry aid program began in April and was led by Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt. While the Federal Trade Commission and Goldschmidt's own department were finishing work on two massive recall decisions last spring, Goldschmidt and some top White House aides were reassuring the industry that, regardless of its regulatory problems, it now had a sympathetic audience within the administration.
The administration hopes to work with other industries in the same way it has with the auto industries, as Eizenstat indicated. The steel industry is expected to be the next candidate, and a White House group is working now on its problems.
But a government-industry partnership, followed to its conclusion, could trap the administration into supporting a succession of "losers," warned experts such as Joel Hirschhorn, who headed a steel industry study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
His report noted that $500 million was channeled to hard-hit steel-producing communities by the Commerce Department under a 1977 administration plan to help that industry. Most of the money went to the less profitable and smaller basic steel industries to pay for environmental equipment.Too little money went to support research in new technology that would help U.S. steelmakers fend off foreign competition, he said.
Where the new efforts save the auto industry will lead is not clear. Almost everything important that the administration might do for the industry threatens to conflict with other important goals, and the White House has not had much experience or success in sorting out these conflicts up to now.
The industry has fought hard to block tougher mileage standards beyond the 2795-miles-per-gallon average that must be met in the 1985 model year.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, wants to raise the standard to 40 mpg by 1995, calling it a vital energy conservation step. The Energy Department also favored a tougher standard, but the Transportation Department staved off a decision this spring until the costs of a higher standard have been studied.
The president on Tuesday backed the Transportation Department's stand, and aides called this an example of the new policy of cooperation: The industry won't be hit with painful new regulations before being given a full chance to make its case. Partners don't dish out unpleasant surprises to each other.
"We will be very cautious in the future in implementing new regulations," the president said.
He also insisted that cooperation would not come at the expense of environmental or worker-safety regulations. One deicision announced Tuesday, officials noted, was a change in regulations protecting autoworkers against toxic arsenic and lead exposures.
General Motors Co. and the UAW have agreed these safety standards can be met by improving individual workers' protective equipment, rather than more expensive engineering changes in auto plants. The change would have been impossible without the UAW's agreement, administration officials said.
The federal environmental, health and safety regulations of the past decade are a product of conflict, not cooperation. Government regulators, companies and business lobbies, environmental groups and unions have fought over these rules in open court and must continue doing so, says consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Cooperation may be just a polite word for backroom deals, he warns.
For the auto industry, at least, that risk appears less fearsome than the reality of closed plants and unemployed workers.