As if Congress had not already invested enough in the controversy over air bags in automobiles, they're about to go through it all again next week.
The players are pretty much the same -- Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) against the air bags, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) for them, federal highway safety czarina Joan Claybrook and consumerist Ralph Nader agitating from the sidelines.
The fight over air bags has become as sticky as anything else facing Congress. As it drags on, it just gets more complicated.
But this time the issue has changed a bit and, as the 96th Congress moves into its final week, not only is the air bag question on the docket, but the future of Claybrook's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may also hang in the balance.
Adding to the mix of controversy, Claybrook disclosed this week that the White House and Transportaion Secretary Neil Goldschmidt have lined up against Dingell, with a veto by President Carter possible if it comes to that.
This is the situation:
In the early fall, the House rejected a three-year reautorization of (NHTSA) when supporters could not come up with the two-thirds vote necessary for passage under a special procedure.
That reauthorization bill, product of a House-Senate conference -- also would have required the top five automakers -- two American, three foreign -- to make air bags available in at least one model line by 1983.
The provision required only that air bags be available. To win acceptance of that approach, the conferees gave the major automakers an extra year to comply with the NHTSA standard. Otherwise, they would have been faced with a 1982 deadline.
With rejection of the conference report under the special two-thirds rule, its sponsors had to try to get it back on the House agenda for action under regular procedures, requiring only a majority vote for approval.
Meanwhile, Dingell, whose Detroit-area district includes the heart of the U.S. auto industry, teamed up with Rep. James Broyhill (R-N.C.) and introduced a counter bill last week. It is essentially the same conference report rejected earlier, but now avoids the air bag issue completely.
Dingell got his substitute version placed on what is called the suspension calendar for next Monday, meaning he, too, will have to have a two-thirds majority to win. Without a bill, NHTSA would have to go into 1981 without an authorization -- making it a prime target for Reagan administration critics who want to kill the agency.
As Dingell was maneuvering, air bag proponents from the House consumer subcommittee were working to get a hearing at the Rules Committee (they still don't have it set up) for permission to return to the floor with their bill.
As that scenario was unfolding, Warner and Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) let it be known that they would attempt to block Senate consideration of the Dingell bill if it passes the House, as is expected. Warner, a recent convert to the idea of air bags, worked during the summer to get the compromise that would let consumers buy air bag-equipped cars in 1983 if they wish.
"We're simply not going to cave in on this," said an aide to Warner. "The new bill in the House is a complete circumvention of the conference process we went through so laboriously."
Claybrook added her own "amen" to that. "Rep. Dingell had been trying to preempt us on air bags for 18 months. Now he comes in at the zero hour and wants to rewrite the conference report -- he wasn't even a conferee. The House suspension calendar is for noncontroversial items and this one is anything but noncontroversial," she said.
Nader and his Congress Watch organization for their part, this week were alerting House supporters to turn out in force to vote against Dingell on Monday. "Dingell would eliminate the air bag option completely. It's ridiculouus," Nader said.
None of which bothers Dingell very much. Said Robert Howard, one of his staff assistants, "It is looking good for us Monday . . . . Without a conference bill, that agency is in big trouble because we have the total belief that the new Reagan administration will completely revoke the standards calling for passive restraints in new automobiles."
"When all is said and done, there is nothing in our legislation to prevent a manufacturer from putting air bags in any cars they want," Howard said.
Don't go away.