WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater on Thursday endorsed criminal penalties for automakers who knowingly sell vehicles with dangerous defects, a reversal of policy that adds to a tide of anti-industry hostility in the wake of the Firestone tire recall.
A bad month for Firestone and Ford is turning into a bad year for the auto industry: After two decades in which automakers have generally had their way in Washington, the balance of power now seems to be shifting in favor of federal auto safety regulators.
Congress is rapidly moving to grant new powers to regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the industry seems to have been caught unprepared.
"This is a big moment for product safety," said Sally Greenberg, a lawyer and lobbyist for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "I walk the halls of Congress and I can tell you it is usually very hard to get attention for product safety."
Slater's embrace of criminal sanctions flies in the face of three decades of department policy based on a belief that threats of jail would inhibit auto companies from coming forward to report defects.
"In cases of egregious circumstances, criminal penalties for those who clearly and willfully violate the law are appropriate," Slater told a House Commerce Committee panel beginning work on legislation that could be sent to the floor next week.
A Senate bill containing criminal penalties was unanimously approved in committee on Wednesday. Lawmakers of both parties say they want to send a bill to President Clinton before they adjourn next month.
Why is the Republican-led Congress suddenly so interested in auto safety?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that control of the House is up for grabs this year and that the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires is likely to continue up to and beyond Election Day.
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