THE CHRYSLER CORPORATION's pleas for federal help are getting more urgent, and very soon -- perhaps today -- the House will vote on the rescue bill. It is a painful and difficult decision. But this attempt at industrial resuscitation is not likely to be successful. It cannot lead to a stronger, more competitive American automobile industry or to secure jobs for American working people. It is a sad moment, for Chrysler has earned a great place in the history of the automobile. But the rescue legislation can only prolong the distress of the company's decline. The right vote on this bill is the vote against it.
Chrysler's case for rescue is that its present financial squeeze is severe but temporary. Chrysler argues passionately that if it can only keep afloat until next autumn, when its next series of small cars go into the showrooms, its future for the longer term will be assured. It's an assurance everyone in Congress, and in the country, would like to believe. But the evidence points the other way.
It is much more probable that the financial strains on Chrysler will continue, varying only in degrees of crisis, as far ahead as the eye can see. The company's present desperate circumstances are not the result simply of one isolated misfortune this year, when a sudden gasoline shortage caught it with too many big cars. On the contrary, it is the cumulative effect of all the changes overtaking the automobile industry.
All of the American automobile companies are going through a profound, and enormously expensive, transition. Part of it is enforced by the federal government, through its pollution standards. But the greater part is enforced by a rapidly shifting market that now demands fuel economy. It has pushed the industry into involuntary multibillion-dollar programs of development and retooling at several times its accustomed pace.
All of the companies are showing the strain. Only General Motors, with 60 percent of the domestic market, can meet these financial requirements out of its American resources. Ford is losing money in this country as fast as Chrysler, and will survive only because of its very profitable European operations. American Motors is drawing on the financial and technical strength of its new partner, Renault.
This transition will not end next fall.Gasoline prices on the European level are now in prospect for Americans. In the race for still greater fuel economy, the manufacturers will be under continuous pressure for further radical and expensive design changes.
Instead of trying to revive a single troubled company, Congress might better think carefully about the economic health of the American automobile industry as a whole. It will not help that industry, now in fierce worldwide competition, to prop up one weakened firm with special concessions.
A final note: the best policy would be to refuse the rescue -- but if Congress should decide otherwise, it would have an obligation to vote the loan guarantees without hampering conditions. Under a wage freeze, the company would rapidly begin to lose the skilled people it needs most.