Highway safety administrator Raymond Peck could have used an air bag yesterday during a head-on collision with Rep. Adam Benjamin (D-Ind.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, who verbally threw Peck out of the room midway through a hearing on Peck's budget.
Peck was attempting to explain various cost estimates for air bags, with Benjamin becoming increasingly perplexed and frustrated at Peck's answers, according to a tape recording of the hearing. The collision followed.
"I would like to submit for the record all we have on costs," Peck said.
"How are we going to believe what you submit for the record?" Benjamin asked.
Peck replied, "I think that question demeans the committee and the hearing, Mr. Chairman, and I'm sorry."
"It doesn't demean the committee, Mr. Peck," Benjamin retorted. "I'm relying on the truth. We don't take you under oath. You're trying to justify a budget. . . ."
At this apparent challenge to his truthfulness, Peck retorted, starting to stand up: "May I please be sworn."
"No. You will not be sworn," said Benjamin. "You may be excused, though. This hearing is adjourned."
The abrupt termination of the appropriations hearing left in doubt how the budget for Peck's agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will be set. Peck has asked for $81.6 million for fiscal 1983 for operations and research, and the confrontation "certainly doesn't help them any," said one of Benjamin's aides.
Benjamin, who left Washington yesterday afternoon, could not be contacted directly for comment, but did issue a statement. He said he "felt Mr. Peck was being evasive, less than candid and deliberately filibustered the committee. There's something here that doesn't meet the eye."
Benjamin also said he had not decided whether to ask Peck to return to complete his testimony, or whether to obtain further information in writing. "If there's no cooperation, he feels the subcommittee will be able to write the NHTSA budget themselves," Benjamin's spokesman said.
The top-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.), called the confrontation a "flash in the pan," describing it as simply a communications problem. Peck and Benjamin got hung up on different estimates on air bag costs, with Peck trying to explain the fine print behind the estimates, Coughlin said.
Was Peck filibustering? "I didn't see that," Coughlin said. Maybe one or the other was a little short on sleep, he suggested.
It was a bad ending to a tough week for the administrator, whose lengthy, sometimes convoluted answers at other congressional hearings have been called filibustering. At another House subcommittee hearing this week, Rep. James Collins (R-Tex.), one of Peck's supporters, said Peck reminded him of the politician who is asked the time and replies by describing how to build a clock. Peck, a lawyer, says he merely is trying to be complete and exact. He also strives at hearings to get his point across, and his answers aren't necessarily the ones the Democratic subcommittee members have been looking for.
Neither Peck nor NHTSA had any comment about yesterday's flare-up.