There is a truism in Washington that was confirmed last week in Congress: Even less popular than government regulation is a regulator suspected of not doing its job.
Not for the first time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — or N.H.T.S.A. (pronounced NITZ-ah) — was forced to answer for failing to protect consumers. In this case, the failure involved a defective General Motors ignition switch implicated in 13 deaths. While G.M.’s new chief executive, Mary T. Barra, took most of the heat in two days of House and Senate hearings last week, she shared the grill with the safety agency’s acting administrator, David J. Friedman.
Critics, and not just in Congress, have noted that it was not the N.H.T.S.A. that exposed G.M.’s safety lapse and forced the automaker’s recent recalls of nearly 2.6 million vehicles. The defect was discovered by a lawyer and engineer involved in a lawsuit filed against G.M. by the parents of a Georgia woman killed in 2010. Subsequent press reports spurred the recall. Further stoking concerns, the agency twice considered and decided against opening a formal investigation of the suspected defect.
Given that backdrop, Mr. Friedman’s testimony that his agency would have acted differently had G.M. not withheld information about the flawed part won little sympathy from Congress.
“He basically told us that if only General Motors told them there was a problem, then N.H.T.S.A. could have told G.M. there was a problem,” said Representative Tim Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania who presided over the House hearing, in an interview. “It’s almost dismissive of their role and I’m not satisfied with that.”
“So what we want to know,” Mr. Murphy continued, “is what is all the information that N.H.T.S.A. had, and how did they handle it each step of the way?”
Yet Congress, too, faces questions. The N.H.T.S.A. budget for operations and research has fallen relative to inflation since 2002, when the G.M. saga began, though no one has suggested that more money and a larger staff might have prevented it. The agency’s unit for investigating defects gets about $10 million a year — less than Ms. Barra’s compensation, noted Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate who led the N.H.T.S.A. in the Carter administration.
Aggressive regulation is typically not rewarded, especially in the Republican-controlled House. And the G.M. case is reviving calls for Congress to strengthen a law enacted in 2000 after the safety scandal involving defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. That law was supposed to give the N.H.T.S.A. greater regulatory muscle by requiring manufacturers to file quarterly early-warning reports on any potential problems or defects. But rules written during the George W. Bush administration give companies a loophole to withhold information they define as business secrets.
The law also limits fines that the N.H.T.S.A. can assess for noncompliance, and allows civil but not criminal penalties. Legislative attempts to address the loopholes and limits in 2010 were blocked by the auto lobby and allies in Congress, though Democrats are now trying again.